Of all the stories about Socretes, I like this one best. Socretes was in prison condemned to death. The evening prior to his death, he hears the guard of his cell playing a musical instrument. Socretes requests him “teach me how to play that”. The guard was surprised and asks “tomorrow morning you’re going to die, what is the use of learning how to play this now”. Socretes replies “I can die richer by that knowledge”.
Whenever I feel frustrated about my ignorance or feel lazy about my lack of passion for learning something new, I remember that story.
Another person who inspired me by his thirst for knowledge was my father. He was just an eighth standard. I do not know pass or fail – have never asked (my mom used to tease him that he’s 8th fail whereas she is 8th pass). Whenever he made a mistake in pronunciation while talking in English, I used to correct him. And he made sure that I repeated it again and again till he got it correctly. Whenever he came across a new word, he used to ask me for the meaning of that word. Which has led to some very embarrassing situations for me. For e.g., one day he was reading newspaper and asked me suddenly, “Kannamma, what is a ‘condom vending machine’”? He was pronouncing the word ‘condom’ wrongly and hence he did not know what he was asking about. For a moment I did not know what to tell him (I was may be 18 years then). I somehow made up my mind how to answer that and told him the correct pronunciation for the word ‘condom’, and explaining the rest was easy :D.
Many a times, I had to read extensively myself to answer him. When internet became popular, his questions ranged from, What is LAN?, What is WAN? What is internet and how does internet work? After explaining the theories, I made sure I took him to an internet café (there was not computer at home those days) and gave him hands on experience. Any new word, any new subject, he was curious. I learnt from him that one is not too late to learn anything and one can learn from even your own kids and you need not be ashamed of it. In contrast, if I correct my mother, she always will say “I’m old and have survived so far without knowing it. Don’t correct me now”. I’m not saying my father is right and my mother is wrong. Somehow I prefer my father’s attitude rather than my mother’s. So, when my son corrects me sometimes (how his teacher pronounces a word is the unwritten rule for him) I do listen to him. It is fascinating to know his view of things.
My learning journey has passed through many embarrassing, enjoyable, enlightening and hilarious terrains.
Like when I was fresh from a village in a town, I was very scared. After my graduation through correspondence, I went for my first job in a concern who were wholesale dealers for batteries, pet bottles and ceramic wares. Most of the times I was left to manage the showroom. Here I was expected to talk in English while answering the calls and while attending customers. I was not at all confident of talking in English. To be frank, I never used to even utter one sentence in English. And my Tamil was pathetic too (my Tamil was Palakkad Tamil, which was mostly Malayalam words with a few supposed to be Tamil words thrown in). We had two managers and both of them used to tell me that I have to try and talk in English and that I can do it if I try. They made me attend telephone calls and forced me to speak in English. They used to sit and listen to my conversations and correct me (at that point in time, I did not even know how to use a telephone so the learning started with how to answer a call and what to say after one picks up the receiver). One of them suggested me reading English books – especially P.G.Wodehouse (I used to read a lot – mostly in Malayalam and I was familiar with most of the English classics as I have read their translation in Malayalam :D). I still remember the reaction when I voluntarily uttered my first sentence in English to one of the managers. There was this red sports car parked on the other side of the road and this manager saw that and called me “mami” (he used to call me ‘mami’ because I used to wear only sari with pallu pulled over to cover both my shoulders – like old movie heroines – and with a big bindi). He called me and said, “mami, look at that car. Don’t you want one like that?”. I looked at that and told him “I don’t fancy”. He gave a whoop and jump and called the other manager, “KSK, come here fast, hear what mami told” and both of them were beaming. I can never forget that. From then onwards, my life has been a series of corrections and revisions.
Another instance I remember clearly happened when I was working in a hospital as a secretary to a doctor (my second job). By this time, I had learnt to speak English reasonably well and I was half-way into Hindi (which helped me speak to North Indian patients) and was struggling to learn Telugu. I must say I gave up on Telugu after learning a stock of few necessary phrases – five lines to be exact – to say ‘doctor is in his rounds’, ‘doctor has gone home’, ‘please wait outside’, ‘no appointments today, come tomorrow’ and ‘I’m going home’ – to get me through the Andhra patients. My boss used to dictate letters to the doctors who referred patients to him giving his diagnosis and medication. In one of his letters I typed he told me that one medical term was spelt wrong. So I went and checked the medical dictionary and found him to be right. I went and told him he’s right and I’ll redo the letter. He just threw the file on the table (a habit of his) and told me “stupid secretary, it’s high time I changed my secretary”. I did not say anything as I knew I was wrong. After a few months, looking at another letter, he told me that a word is spelt wrong. Now, this time it was a normal English word – I think it was ‘maintenance’ – and I was confident that I spelt it right and told him so. He wanted the dictionary and I got it for him. He checked and said “yes, you are right” and signed the letter. I picked up the letter and was about to go out. I remembered then and turned and told him sweetly, “I think it’s high time I changed my boss”. He was shocked for moment (may be confused) and then burst out laughing and said “yes, you can”.
It’s not just words and language, mind you. Even before my first job, I worked for a month as a casual employee, in a multinational company. I had not completed my graduation then and was pretty scared of the people there – especially ladies who I thought looked down at me as if i was a mosquito :D. One of the ladies gave me a sheet of paper and asked me to take a Xerox copy. Now, I have never in my life seen a Xerox machine (remember, I’m a village girl :D). I went in the direction she showed and went inside a small room which had a box which I assumed was The machine. A man was just leaving and I asked him how to go about. He told me you place the paper there and press the green button and you’ll get a copy. I placed the paper, prayed to God and pressed the green button. Now, in that machine, the lid moves all the way as it scans the paper (these days everything happens inside) and comes back (I did not know that then). When the lid started moving I got panicky. I thought I pressed something wrong and the top is about to fall down as a result. I grabbed the lid and tried to pull back. As me and the machine were battling someone else came to take a copy and shouted “what are you doing?”. I was about to cry, I told him “I did something and the top is going to fall and I’m trying to pull back”. To be fair, he did not laugh, he just told me “leave it, that is how it copies” (you may laugh… I am).
In my next job, I developed my fascination for all gadgets. It started with a telephone (I must say I was always confident of using a screw driver. While in hostel, the only one who could change a fuse wire was me. No one, not even the watchman knew how to do it. Oh, when I did that for the first time, I never told them it is the first time I’m changing a fuse wire and I’m learning it as I’m doing it :D). My boss, who was the financial director, wanted me to find somebody to connect a new telephone. There was no easy plug and use phones then. You have to connect all the wires inside the junction box. I promised him that I’ll get it done by the time he returns. But then, I couldn’t find anybody. I did not want to say that I couldn’t do it. So I thought “why can’t I try”. So I obtained a screwdriver from somebody and went on doing it. I just opened the junction box and looked which colour wires were connected where and then went on removing the old ones and connecting the new ones. As I was closing the box my boss came in and I sheepishly told him I tried connecting it since I couldn’t find anybody. He picked up the receiver and it was working. He was surprised and asked me how I learnt it. I told him I learnt it then :D. My next job opened up the world of computers and then onwards there’s no looking back. I am fascinated by any new technology and don’t lose an opportunity to read about anything new. My husband can never understand why I keep a set of tools at home and try repairing anything first before calling somebody else (he swears that he’s never touched a screwdriver in his life and is not going to either).
Though most of the above instances are more than 20 years old, even now I realize that I do not know anything. Imagine the scientific and technological advancement. Imagine the number of subjects one can study. Imagine the amount of knowledge available. One can never learn enough and one can never say “enough”. One can never stop learning, can one?
To sign off, I have this mulla nasruddin story:
One day a young village teacher who was a seeker for knowledge told Mulla Nasrudin that he had decided to travel across the world to seek additional knowledge.
When the young man asked Nasrudin what kind of people he should look for, Mulla Nasrudin recalled some wise words he had once heard from his elders:
He who knows not, and knows not that he knows not, is a fool. Shun him.
He who knows not, and knows that he knows not, is a child. Teach him.
He who knows, and knows not that he knows, is asleep. Awaken him.
He who knows, and knows that he knows, is wise. Follow him.
Then Mulla Nasrudin paused for a moment and said: “But you know how difficult it is to be sure that the one who knows, and knows that he knows, really knows.”