It had been three years since Kumar graduated. He had been educated in Kerala, and had acquired in his 26 years a Bachelor's degree in History and a Master's degree in Commerce. When he graduated, Kumar had, like countless others, applied for jobs and attended interviews. He had applied to banks, hospitals, hotels, trade unions, the government and other organizations. To date, he had not found a job. He was aware that his lack of professional or specialist qualifications did not make him particularly marketable. But he didn't want to 'stoop' and accept 'lower' job offers. He was a Brahmin. His father had never worked, having inherited land from his father, and was proud of that fact. But unexpected situations had forced him to sell most of the land. The rent from the remaining land was scarcely enough to make ends meet. The family now turned to Kumar, the eldest and only son, to deliver them from their financial woes. Kumar had refused to work in his family-owned farm, saying that it was beneath his dignity.
Kumar knew friends, graduates like him, who had become bus conductors. Straitened family circumstances and a dire need for money to conduct a sister's wedding ceremony or to pay for a much needed surgical operation for a mother had compelled them to accept anything that would bring home some dough. Anyway, the job has dignity, they thought. They could always keep an eye out for something better in the meantime. Who knows, one of the commuters they meet could just be their link to a better job and a brighter future. With such thoughts, Kumar's friends tried to accept their present circumstances and keep the flame of hope alive.
His father had advised him to do another degree, a Bachelor's of Education, as teachers were in demand. But Kumar had refused, disdaining it as a "woman's" job. From cheerful young man, Kumar turned into an irritable malcontent. He started smoking and drinking to forget his troubles. He began quarreling with his parents and sisters. The most insignificant thing would ignite his inflammable temper: a misplaced dhoti, lack of salt in one of the dishes, his sister's singing, or noises from the neighborhood. One day, in a fit of fury, he shouted at his mother and stormed out of the house.
He went to a grove near a temple he used to visit daily. Growing up, he had been devout, emulating his mother's pious ways. He felt he had a personal bond with Devi, the Goddess, who was enshrined in the temple. When he stood before the shrine, admiring the beauty of Devi's enchanting form, he would mentally communicate with Her. He would tell Her the problems he was facing in school. He would confess the acts of mischief he committed, which put him in his father's bad books. He would confide in Her his ambitions, hopes and aspirations. Whenever he looked at Devi, he used to feel that She was, not an idol but, a living, breathing form, looking at him with motherly love and understanding, listening attentively to him. Whenever he left, he always felt better, lighter.
The last few years, he had stopped visiting the temple. He felt let down by Devi. Why hadn't She helped him find a job? Hadn't he prayed to Her sincerely for so many years? Why then was She heaping all these problems on him and his family? Didn't She care? He began to doubt if She even existed. What if She was just a pretty statue that the unscrupulous installed in temples to exploit the faith of the unsuspecting for their own selfish ends? What if there was no such thing as God? Perhaps, there was no such thing as the law of karma. If there was such a thing as divine providence, surely it would reward the righteous and punish the unrighteous. But this was nowhere to be seen. One had to have one's wits about oneself, and look out for opportunities that would bring one sensual pleasures and material wealth.
As he sat under the banyan tree in the grove, Kumar began to reflect upon the course his life had taken. The wind that caressed him as he sat in the cool shade began to soothe his agitated mind. He became aware of the bhajans that were being played in the temple. It had been a long time since he heard them. They were playing one of his favorites now:
Only You can wipe away the tears caused by this wretched life.
Only You can confer peace on this tormented soul.
Only You can save this soul from the misery of perdition.
Quite against his will, Kumar started humming those lines. After some time, he yearned to go into the temple and experience the sense of being protected and cared for by Devi. He ran into the temple and prostrated before Her shrine. Through his heartbreaking sobs, he prayed to Devi with total abandon. "Please save me. Am I not Your child? I cannot take this misery and pain anymore." After some time, he accepted the prasad the priest offered him and left.
On his way home, he saw a group of school girls surrounding a man. Curious, he went closer. The man was repairing umbrellas manually. He was smiling at one of the school girls, telling her, "I've fixed the button that will allow you to open the umbrella with just one push of your thumb! It will cost you two rupees."
"In that case, please take it out." the school girl responded. "I don't want the push-button."
"Then you'll have to pay four rupees," said the man, his eyes twinkling merrily.
"Two rupees for putting it in, and two rupees for taking it out!" Hearing his witty answer, the other girls started giggling. Chuckling, the man reassured the girl that he had only been joking.
He continued repairing the umbrellas deftly, removing a damaged spoke on one and replacing it with another, stitching the canvas back onto the spoke on another, and lubricating the spine so that it would open and close smoothly on yet another. As he worked, he spoke to his customers genially, smiling all the time. Kumar noticed that all the customers, including the school girls, were smiling and enjoying his banter and pleasant company. He himself couldn't hold back a smile when he heard some of the umbrella man's quips.
As he walked home, Kumar began reflecting upon what he had seen. The umbrella man was not only happy, he spread happiness around. The look of contentment on his face was enough to calm the hearts and minds of those who saw him. Kumar, on the other hand, was deeply miserable and making life miserable for his family and those around him too. Why couldn't he be like the umbrella man, who, though engaged in a humble task, was doing it with pride and joy?
When he reached home, he saw his mother standing on the veranda. He prostrated to her, much to his mother's amazement. Kumar apologized to her for having shouted at her. That afternoon, Kumar went to the farm and started working there, along with the hired workers. His father was surprised as was the rest of his family. When they asked him what had happened, Kumar only smiled. He didn't say anything. But in his heart, he sent a prayer of thanks to Devi for having shown him the way through the example of the umbrella man. Om