I have many good friends. In fact, I have no bad friends. Not sure if I have been a good friend to some of my good friends. Sometimes I think that I could have been a better person with some of my old friends.
Today, I got a call from a friend I made in 1989. As I was nearing home, Mr. Vaidya called. He owns the Jolly Offset Press at Vadala Udyog Bhavan, which his two sons now run. "We have a new machine. Your feet must touch our office- he said in his typical manner in Marathi. I have been trying to call you but your number has changed. Finally, I sent my man to your home and your father gave your number". It is always embarrassing when Mr. Vaidya says these things. He is at least fifteen years older than I. But more importantly, he was one of the first people to help me when I was barely a few weeks old in the literacy work.
I cannot remember the exact date but it must have been October 1989. Some of my friends and I had set up an organization with a rather long name, which eventually became CORO for Literacy. Our first activity was to be a human chain from Dharavi to BARC in Mumbai. One was the most well-known slum of ASIA and the other represented the scientific and technological progress of India. School children and youth were to form this chain. CORO received the funds for this program in mid-October and the schools were about to close for the Diwali vacation and reopen a week before Nov 14 - the date of the event. We had only a week to print close to 100,000 leaflets (if I recall correctly) and distribute them in schools along the path of the human chain (at that time I did not think that a large number of school children would not be able to read!!).
Mrs. Kumud Bansal was the Secretary of Education of Maharashtra at the time. I had written up the text of the leaflet but had no clue where to get it composed and printed. She sent me off to meet a gentleman who worked for the Text Book Bureau, whose name I cannot recall. The people in Mrs. Bansal's office said he was a very strict man and it would be impossible to get his help in a hurry. But, he was my only chance. He looked at me sternly. Should a young man of mid-thirties in jeans and sneakers be taken seriously? I suppose he had to take Mrs. Bansal seriously. He read my draft and looked at me. "Well written", is all he said before asking what I wanted. I said I need this printed in four days. He picked up the phone. "Mr. Vaidya will do it for you. He is your only hope in this hurry and his printing is very good". He spoke with Mr. Vaidya seriously and I was packed off to Vadala Udyog Bhavan.
A balding man with a lot of white hair, chewing paan in a manner that was well imitated by Kishor Kumar in Padosan sat in a small cabin behind a small desk with a glass top. He always had tobacco paan in his mouth. The fan in the cabin was recirculating hot air as Mr. Vaidya had his shirt buttons open to his belly with his wet banyan showing. He took one look at the draft calling for children to help in making their parents and neighbors literate. He had no comment. "If you can get this typeset by tomorrow, I can get it done for you". Where? Mr. Vaidya made a call and off I went to Akshar Typeset (I think). It was late afternoon and they did not complete the work for two days. When I came back to Mr Vaidya he said he could not give the 100,000 copies within two days. He made his calculations. There were other urgent orders. Then positives, printing, cutting, bundling... no, could not be done. This meant our whole campaign was sunk. I just sat there contemplating quietly. A few seconds went by as his trusted employee Tukaram and his friend Mr. Bali Marathe watched the two of us. Mr. Vaidya broke the silence. "Call me tomorrow evening and I will tell you if I can deliver by the day after evening. That is the best I can do".
The next afternoon I went back to the press instead of calling. Mr. Vaidya had a smile on his face. "I did not have your phone number. Good you came. Your order will be ready by 6 pm". I told him I could not pay him for another week. He laughed. "Don't worry. I read what you have written. Then we stopped all the other work and printed your leaflet". The work done was excellent although it was just a simple black and white leaflet and his main business required much more precision with colors.
The leaflets reached the schools in time. Teachers and CORO volunteers told the children what it was about. They had to take the leaflets home and write the names of illiterate people in their homes or in the neighborhood. When they came back from the vacation, they would participate in the human chain and take a pledge to teach at least one person.
Mr. Vaidya has remained a trusted friend since then. Some of my colleagues later compared his cost with the cost of other printers. It turned out that Mr. Vaidya's was costlier. I called him. He told me that my colleagues were right but precision and good quality assurance meant little higher cost. My colleagues did not give him the job but Mr. Vaidya was fine. He continued to call me every now and then and we shared a cup of tea in his small cabin.
Today, I visited him again and he offered me fresh coconut water. We talked about his new machine.
On my way back I was wondering. Mr. Vaidya has lost a lot of hair. And a few front teeth. And there was something else. I called his office again. "Mr. Vaidya, you were not eating paan today!!!". He laughed. "Yes, gave up some years ago. You should stop smoking too. Remember, it cannot be done in stages. Just throw away the packet and do not smoke again.". That was his advice. Hmmm
And, what happened to the human chain that tied Mr. Vaidya and me together??
Well, it did not happen the way it was planned.
Loksabha general elections were announced as soon as the schools closed. Elections were to be held in the third-fourth week of November. So, we could not get children to come on the street. Government funds could not be used for something like this. So functions and events were held in each school and we began our work soon after the elections.