As a young boy he had read Dale Carnegie’s, How to Win Friends and Influence People. It had had a deep and lasting impact on him and changed his life forever. Carnegie had, inter-alia, talked about the power of a compliment.
He began with the servant at the sweets shop in the neighbourhood, “How do you manage to arrange the sweets on the trays in all those designs?” Mirchi believed in making the presentation a visual delight. He smiled with pride, “I can make any design.”
“Oh! ....Can you? Then can you make Taj Mahal also?”
“Oh, Yes, I can! I’ll make it next Diwali which is round the corner.”
On the Diwali day, the shop was extended with wooden planks half into the road, a shamiana was put up, and the trays displaying sweets of all kinds were twenty times the usual number. Anil went to buy sweets for the customary puja. Lo and behold, right in the centre, in the top row stood the shining Taj Mahal made of barfi, covered with edible silver foil!
Mirchi bent down and the boy whispered in his ear, “Maan gaye Ustaad!” (Kudos to you!).
The young fellow never forgot the radiance on Mirchi’s jet black face. Once in a while, the family got the breakfast of puris and potato curry from the sweets shop. The curry Mirchi gave Anil doubled in quantity and he added a couple of barfis to boot as freebee for Anil, especially. Anil polished off the sweets on the way home. His life had turned literally sweet.
Over the years, as the young Anil grew up he evolved, like most people do, a philosophy of life -- from his experiences, his father’s views and his reading – he lived by: sin is hurting someone’s feelings, dharma is doing one’s job with integrity and the highest good is giving someone a happy feeling. Of course, it yielded practical benefits to him, too, but it was a mix of selflessness and self-interest. Sometimes, Anil was chided for it. His wife asked him once, “Why do you have to feign ignorance while talking to somebody, when you know the whole thing already?”
“It does me no harm.”
Their son, a brilliant IITian who had just got placement in an MNC, was harsher, “Papa, this is too much! Why should you act like an idiot? You gawk listening to a rank fool.”
Anil only smiled.
Anil let people believe they made a difference to his life by telling him things that he did not know. The beaming joy he witnessed on their faces was a perfume a few drops of which fell on him, too.
Anil never missed a chance to pay a compliment and that got him dividends.
He was spared by the staffroom bully, because he had once told him, “Saxena sahib, I’ve not seen in my life someone with more spontaneous wit, sense of humour. The result was even when the bully was starved of a target – for his nourishment came from mocking his colleagues – he would leave Anil alone. Everybody in the college envied Anil.
And then there was the khadoos (fault finder) Accounts Officer, with his surly face, and hawkish eyes which were used to find out some real or imaginary lacuna in the medical reimbursement forms, or bills for a function held by a convener of the committee or whatever else and then gloat over deducting some amount from the total, or at least delay the payment.
For Anil, he was the hardest nut to crack, but crack he did. This is what he did: “Tola Ram Ji, where do you live?” he asked.
Tola Ram looked at him penetratingly, suspecting him of a fishy motive and kept quiet.”
Anil continued, “Tola Ram ji, I just learnt about your son cracking CAT exam. I’ve come to congratulate you. I hope, I’m not disturbing you.”
The AO softened a little. “No, no. Please sit down. Thank you.”
“I think it is genes. He has inherited your sharp brain.”
Tola Ram again remained silent. But he was mighty pleased inwardly. Anil’s medical bills sailed through the Accounts Department unhindered.
One day Prasanjeet Guha, Anil’s friend, teaching in the neighbouring college, came over. “Anil ... I need your help,” he said hesitatingly. Prasanjeet was one of the gentlest persons Anil had known: soft spoken, mild and awfully shy.
“I’ll be glad to do what I can for you, Prasan.”
“Anil, you’re so well read. I think you’re the best person to guide me. My only worry is you’re so busy with your own teaching and research work:.
“What is it, Prasan?”
“You see, Anil, I’ve been writing short stories.”
“That’s good news. For how long?”
“For about two years.”
“Terrific. Now tell me how can I help you?”
“I don’t know how my stories have come out. I value your judgment. All I want to know from you is whether a story of mine stands qua story. I’m just beginning from the scratch, you know.”
“Fine. To begin with, give me a couple of them.”
“Thanks a million. I know your time is precious. But there’s hardly anyone I can turn to.”
“Don’t be apologetic, Prasan. We are close friends.”
“Thanks a lot. I’ll come over to your place tomorrow.”
“You’re welcome. Make it in the evening.”
Anil had read the stories. They were in the first person narrative. One could make out Prasanjeet was dishing out episodes from his life. That was not an issue per se. There are any numbers of autobiographical novels. But the problem was that Prasanjeet had no idea of form or the craft of story- writing that would turn the personal into art. He taught literature no doubt, but creativity is quite another matter.
Anil was in a quandary. How should he put it so that Prasan was not disheartened, and yet got some idea of the quality of what he had written?
“I’ve been restless to see you, Anil,” said Prasanjeet settling down in a chair.
“So have I been. I’ve read both the stories twice over.”
“Oh, that’s wonderful.” Prasanjeet looked nervous and vulnerable.”
“ Prasan, they’re good.... yes, they are....but...”
Before he could complete the sentence, Prasanjeet sprang out of his chair and seized Anil’s hand in gratitude. “I can’t thank you enough, Anil, for sparing the time. You don’t know what great motivation you’ve provided me to go on writing.”
And then he became reflective, with a faraway look in his eyes, “I want to make it big, Anil. I want to make a place for myself in the creative writing world. You know my mother used to bless me, “Khoka, you’ll be a famous man one day.”
“I used to feel emptiness inside me, a sense of lack in my life till I started writing. You know I did not do my Ph.D. because I wanted to write stories and novels.”
Anil was surprised. A usually taciturn man had become so voluble that he did not allow him to put in a few words edgewise. But Anil was determined to make his suggestions. He would like Prasan to improve his writing. And that could be done, only if he pointed out to him what all he needed to do to write good stories.
“Well, as I said they’re good, but not outstanding,” he said.
Anil noticed the light on Prasanjeet’s face fade a bit. Strange, did he expect he would produce masterpieces the day he picked up pen? Still Anil went ahead and said, “Prasan, you’ve an eye for detail and you bring alive the scene you are describing. Yes, you’re really good at it.”
“But long narrations reduce the interest of the reader.”
“I’m sure what I’m going to tell you will not be new to you. Bring in conflict without which there can’t be a story and without which a story does not become gripping. It may be conflict of an individual with society, with family, with another individual, with nature, or with self or even God. Second, as you know what Wimsatt and Brooks advise: show, do not narrate.”
Prasanjeet kept nodding his head lugubriously, but he looked crestfallen.
What Anil had done was against his grain and he felt bad. But it was necessary. It was in his friend’s interest.
Prasanjeet came after one and a half months with two more stories.
“Anil, can I assume you’ll continue to read my stories?” he said with a smile.
“Of course, you can.”
“I’m sorry, Anil, I’m exploiting our friendship.”
“Well, what are friends for?” Prasanjeet thanked him profusely and left.
Anil was saddened to read the stories. These two suffered exactly from the same flaws. Page after page of narration, very little dialogue and hardly any drama. Should he again tell him what these stories lacked? But then he remembered how shattered Prasan had looked the last time when he told him not even the full truth. No, he could not have the heart to smash his dream. He had no right to.