A few days ago I was interacting with Gordon Zacks, the Chairman and former CEO of R.G.Barry Corporation, the world’s largest comfort footwear manufacturer. He is also the author of the book Defining Moments: Stories of Character, Courage and Leadership. During the course of the conversation, he was keen to know and understand what in my personal life was driving my value system and despite many pressures, how could I still hold onto my cherished value of honesty. I then felt compelled to tell him this intimate story that I had not shared publicly.
It was 1978 and I was a 8th standard student at St.Josephs Indian High School, Bangalore. It was an all-boys school and some of the best days of my life were spent there. I still have vivid memories of the friends, teachers and all the fun that we used to have there. We would have a 45-minute break for lunch. Most of us had fine-tuned the habit of eating our lunch during the 5-minute recess that we had earlier in the day, saving every minute of the lunch break for playing cricket and football. It was our daily ritual and the most important school activity for us. The privileged few who had little money would first run to the petty street vendor standing outside the school gates to buy a treat or two before joining the mad frenzy on the playing field. Imagine 2000 teenage boys running around crazily on a 10-acre playground. Many times we would score a goal and then realize that it was someone else’s football that we scored it with. We would end up taking a catch of some other team playing in the same field and leave behind a fight on whether the batsman could still be declared out or not.
Those were the days when pocket money was hard to come by and I would often look fondly at the Guava fruit or the Kulfi stick that my friends bought from the street vendors during lunchtime. The street vendors would promptly turn up at the school gates at 3.15 pm again, when classes for the day ended and we would be waiting for the buses to take us home. It was one of those days that I saw large juicy guavas being sold by a vendor. I decided that it was time to acquire one of them and I did just that. The only problem was that I had no money to buy it and had quietly managed to steal it from under the vendor’s watchful eyes.
I carried the fruit home and displayed it with a flourish to my mother and proudly exclaimed that I had stolen it without managing to get caught. I was surprised that my mother was silent and did not praise my skillful handiwork. A couple of minutes later, she told me that she felt sad for not being able to bring me up with the ability to distinguish between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and wanted me to make amends. I was expecting the world to come apart and felt that a sound thrashing was on the cards. She surprised me further by not doing any of that and quietly announced that I had to think through what I had done that day. She said that if I felt remorse at what I had done, I had to take the fruit back to the vendor the next day and apologize and return it to him. I spent an agonizing night wondering how I would be able to do this. The vendor would always be busy with so many of my friends and schoolmates surrounding him all the time. For once, I wished that my mother had resorted to a good thrashing and just let me go. The guava no longer looked as tempting or as juicy as before.
The whole of the next day, I found myself thinking through every possible scenario. I could just throw the fruit away and tell my mother – the deed was done. I could still simply eat and enjoy the fruit or better still, quietly replace the fruit and forget the whole thing. Strangely, I could never get myself to do any of this. There was an unexplainable force wanting me to do the ‘right thing’ and the right thing to do was to return the fruit and apologize to the vendor. I nervously approached him that evening at a time when he was a little less busy. I handed him the fruit and told him that I had stolen it the previous day and that I was sorry and wanted to return it to him. He just could not believe what I was telling him. He was as shell shocked as me and looked towards me for an explanation. I told him what had happened the previous day and how my mother had wanted me to do this. What he said rings in my ears till date. He told me that as long as mothers like mine existed, the world would be a good place to live in!
At that moment, I felt not just relieved, but like a strange power engulfing me. I felt full, confident and enriched. Words are indeed inadequate to explain completely how I felt. It was indeed a defining moment for me. I felt the power of honesty and integrity. This power was so temptingly strong that I felt that I would do nothing to lose it. It is this strength of character that comes from staying on the path of ‘truth’ despite the pressures and temptations that I had to face later in life. The other extraordinary lesson that my mother taught me in her own way was the power of a genuine apology and the fact that harsh punishment is usually a lesser teacher than true remorse.