Every year we organise a small event at our bank on our bank’s foundation day. But this year we were instructed not to, keeping in mind the deadly contagious virus that has spread its venomous wings all across the globe and put our normal routine to a standstill. So, we decided to buy some gifts for the walk-in customers. We zeroed in on a chocolate and pen combination. This is a rural branch, where I’m posted now. The splash of green on my way on the very first day to my new office rejuvenated my mind in an instant, and that positivity continued to stay even after two years.
On our bank’s foundation day, the branch was decorated with colourful balloons and ribbons. Usually, the regular footfall in any rural branch is always high compared to their urban or metro counterparts, but the corona pandemic has made these innocent village people scared too. After continuous awareness programmes held by the local panchayat, people have finally understood the real dangers of unnecessary roaming and crowding. Hence, we weren’t expecting much of a rush at our branch that day, but due to the decorative gate outside our office premises, people came flocking in, mostly out of curiosity.
One such customer was Dulari Devi. She’s a widow, almost 70 years old. She always visits the branch with her granddaughter, who usually fills out her withdrawal form. She comes from a destitute background. The place where I’m posted now is covered in nurseries. Her late husband used to work as a labourer in such a nursery. After he passed away, her son got the job and declined to take her responsibility. She worked as househelp for many years to earn her livelihood, till she got seriously sick and was fired by her mistress. She now depends completely on the old age allowance given under the government scheme. Therefore, she visits the branch every month with her granddaughter, puts her thumb impression in front of me, and withdraws the money.
Dulari Devi asked me about the decorations in my branch. I told her that it’s the bank’s birthday as she was unable to understand what a foundation day means. I gave them each a gift. Both of them were so happy. But Sumi, her granddaughter, upon receiving the gift, told me, "Didi, don’t waste this pen on Dadi. She can’t write. So, it's better that you keep the pen and just give the chocolate to her! " I was stunned to see the honesty and common sense in that teenager’s words. She was right. But her words made Dulari Devi sad. I could see it in her eyes how insulted and helpless she felt. These village women never got a chance to go to school. Even in the 21st century, women from these families are married off in their teenage years. During my tenure here in this branch, I've seen teenage pregnant girls open accounts to get maternity allowances. So, I could only imagine the time when women like Dulari Devi were born. I realised that this might be the first time she has been gifted a pen in her entire life. It would be very unconscionable to ask for the pen back. So, I smiled and told Sumi, "No, it’s a gift from our bank to our customer Dulari Devi for staying with us since the inception of this branch. I cannot take it back. She can keep it with her, and who knows? Maybe she’s going to need it someday! " Sumi gave me an insolent smile. Dulari Devi noticed.
Five months have passed since then. During this time, Dulari Devi, as usual, paid visits to the branch with her granddaughter. On the sixth month, she came to the branch with her granddaughter along with an application. I asked, "What is this for? Do you want to close your account? " "No," she said, smiling. “Madam, ever since you gave me the pen, I couldn’t stop thinking about what you said that day. You thought that I was going to need this pen someday, even though you knew that I’m illiterate. This gave me hope. I used to hold the pen and imitate others. Then I borrowed some paper from the grandchildren and started drawing scribbles on it. One day, Sumi caught me doing that. She asked me if I wanted to write my own name. I said yes. For once, I want to write my own name with my own hands. Trust me, Madam, I’ve never been so blessed in my entire life. Right after the word was spread among my grandchildren that I wanted to write, all of them came to help me. You know, madam, because of the COVID pandemic, all the children are stuck at home. So, my grandchildren, their little friends, all of them became my teachers. They didn't judge or ridicule me. They held my hand and taught me to write letters, numbers, and easy words as well. Finally, after practising for six months, I felt confident enough to put my signature in place of my thumb impression. I haven’t learnt much. But I can recognise letters and numbers, and I can sign now. So, this is the application that my granddaughter has written for me. Can you accept it? "
I was out of words. I have taken part in a number of social activities in the last two years in this rural village as part of our bank’s CSR activities, but this was indescribable. I asked her to put her signature on our bank’s formal signature card, and she shyly wrote her name in clear font. The confidence I saw in her eyes gave me the confidence I was looking for. "Thank you for your gift, Madam," Dulari Devi said, while putting the pen in her bag. "I might have to throw this pen away after its ink dries up, but the gift you have given me is going to stay with me forever."