It is often said, you can make many choices in life but you cannot choose your parents and neighbors. So, to have a good neighbor is more a matter of chance than choice. I must say that in this respect we have been so blessed to have fabulous neighbors throughout my childhood…neighbors who have had a profound influence in my growth and upbringing.
My father worked for a State owned Oil Refinery in the coastal city of Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh in South India and owing to the same, we lived in the housing colony called Yarada Park, which was the accommodation provided by his employer. That was perhaps the best thing that happened to my siblings, myself and the hundreds of my peers who lived and grew with us during those times. Opposite to our home lived the family of Mr. YV Rao, whom we all addressed as “Uncle YV”.. Our houses were just 20 feet away from each other. Our families being from the same back ground and confronted with the same issues, we shared the good and bad times together This person was loved and admired by the young and the old alike. He as an extremely affable person – a person who displayed amazing leadership qualities…which to us was not surprising, considering that he was an “Ex-serviceman” who served the Indian Army and had fought for two wars (Indo-China & Indo-Pak).
Uncle YV was a leader and conscience keeper of the entire colony. There was no program or issue that he was not involved. His wise counsel and leadership was so crucial to keep the entire colony, its administration and the life in general to move on smoothly. Being an eloquent speaker with brilliant leadership skills, he had that intense connection with young and old alike, a quality which was so admirable and yet so rare. His towering stature with a huge frame and pot-belly which was his “Hall-mark”, that made him stand out distinctively in a crowd of hundreds. But the most endearing aspect was his ability to take quick decisions and iron out issues concerning the residents.
The inmates of colony were a microcosm of India and was as diverse as India itself. Uncle YV was the unifying factor. He was a polyglot who spoke more than seven different languages. There was perhaps no one else but Uncle YV who could connect with each member and every child. But being their immediate neighbor, perhaps I enjoyed more privileges than many others. I had access to him and had the opportunity to interact and observe many great qualities. I am so fortunate to have been able to try and imbibe many of the magnificent qualities that I observed from Uncle YV. Whether it was conducting the Flag Hoisting ceremony for the Independence or Republic Day or conducting a Sports or Cultural Event, Uncle YV was always in the forefront. He served as the Organizer, the compere and Commentator depending on what the event was. He would lead the singing of the National Anthem in his unique and distinct baritone with so much pride and confidence. By way of his personal example, he taught us to be proud of our Nation and sowed the first seeds of patriotism in our hearts.
Having been a part of the School Choir group, where I was trained to sing the National Anthem within the stipulated time, with the right scale, tone and tenor and being inspired by his rendition, on one occasion, I tried to sing as loudly and boldly as he did. This did not go unobserved. Uncle YV noticed that I had the ability to sing. I was just a “bathroom” singer and most of the time used to get admonished for spending too much time singing in the bathroom. Uncle YV came home one day and told my parents, “Munna has a good voice. He sings well”. I noticed that his words made my parents proud and embarrassed at the same time. Proud that their child was being appreciated by a person of the stature of Uncle YV, embarrassed that they did not notice the trait nor encourage. That day, Uncle YV and I spend two hours together. He listened patiently to many of my songs while I enjoyed many of his. My father even recorded our songs on the cassette tape. His rendition of the famous Mohammed Rafi hit “Bhagwan” from Baiju Bawra, still reverberates in my heart and memory. After that for every event in the Colony, I had the privilege of singing a song!!
Uncle YV was also a brilliant speaker. For any event, he spoke extemporaneously but every word that he uttered had depth, intensity and loads of wisdom. My first lessons on public speaking was by observing Uncle YV. It is those skills that I learnt by observing Uncle YV that I tried to polish and develop as a Public Speaker myself. I vividly recall, attending an Independence Day event in the Refinery. It was customary for the General Manager to address the attending staff and families on the event and also share some words of wisdom, information with us. That year, the GM decided to allow Uncle YV to speak instead of him, although Uncle YV was much lower in position than many others in attendance. It was only because he realized the abilities of Uncle YV as a prolific speaker. That day, I witnessed Uncle YV at his best! He appreciated the GM/s gesture and used that as a metaphor of true democracy where a Workman is accorded the privilege of addressing a gathering of Senior Management, staff and families. Like many others, I witnessed and assimilated Uncle’s words with awe and admiration!!
Years later, when I started my career in the same Refinery, I had the opportunity to witness his abilities as a Maintenance Leader. Again I was privileged to learn the art of team work, using authority with compassion and the art of ensuring the care and comfort of the workmen. Uncle retired from active service and went on to pursue his passion to serve his church. He used to travel the length and breadth of the country spreading the word of God! Owing to my moving to distant Saudi Arabia, I could not visit or meet Uncle YV for a few years. But when I did, he was looking frail and of fragile health. I was pained to see what old age could do to a person. He spoke less and laughed less. He was no longer the person I knew. I felt a strange dull pain slaking my heart to see the withering of a once sprightly, charismatic and confident person…larger than life…now just a shadow of his real self.
A few months later, Uncle YV passed away. When I heard the news, I felt as if the world was slipping below my feet…as if a huge banyan tree had fallen and with it fell the foliage under it, the birds that dwelled on it, a huge loss to the many men who benefitted by the huge tree, of which I was undoubtedly one. It was an end of an era.. But Uncle YV will live on in the minds of all those who lived with us during those time. His words of wisdom, his values and the strength of character that he advocated, will serve his posterity like a lighthouse that sends beacons of lights and guide them to the destiny that they deserve!!