Homage to a Tea Seller And Padma Shri Awardee D Prakash Rao, who imparted education to slum and orphan Children
COVID-19 has taken away (On January 13) , one more friend; this time a childhood friend – D Prakash Rao – with whom I had shared some unforgettable moments in my formative years. This write-up is a tribute to that kindred soul.
We were in our pre-teen years. We were impetuous and reckless. In our search for ant-residues for preparing fish baits, Prakash and I put one hand each in two holes of an anthill. We felt something unusual, something fleshy out there, and beat a hasty retreat on a rather lazy Winter afternoon in that gated- enclave of the Cantonment area of Cuttack, Odisha. Our conversation was brief with our hearts pounding.
Prakash: Did you feel it?
Both: It was really close?
We didn’t run away. We stood at a distance keeping our eyes fixed on the anthill, still ruing the fact that one of their main ingredients for the fish bait was missing. An emaciated cobra slowly emerges and slithers away into the bush nearby. We hugged each other realising that we had just escaped a near disaster and swore that we won’t tell our parents about the incident lest they take away our freedom of movement in that area with so much to explore- the Mahanadi River and its rich embankments, the River Island, and the huge fish pond replete with many varieties of fish.
The incident took place nearly fifty years ago. So when I met Prakash in 2019 at my home in New Delhi for a dinner hosted by me in his honour for receiving the Padmashree Award from the President, it was time to reminisce about the years we had spent together from 1967 to 1972.
He was my classmate, my friend, and a shareholder of our many joint-adventures.
The above incident was the number one in his memory stack as it was with me and it was accurate to the granular details when we exchanged notes after so many years. The others related to academic and sports activities.
Prakash came from a proud yet disadvantaged background. His father was an Army Veteran who had taken part in the World War-II and was commended for his gallantry in the ferocious battles in the jungles of Burma. After being discharged from the Army, he worked with the Kalinga Tubes Ltd till it closed down in the mid-sixties. To support his family, Prakash’s father used to fish in the pond near our house or in the river. He also opened a tea-stall later to supplement his income.
One day Prakash introduced me to his father on the embankment of the pond. He appearance was elegant with a crew cut hairstyle, broad shoulders, long sleeves rolled up and a belt to keep the shirt tucked in. Discipline mattered to him a lot; he won’t allow us to chatter while fishing and ask us instead to focus on the fish-bite indicator. From the swaying of the indicator itself he could guess fairly accurately the kind of fish under water nibbling away at the bait. One day, when the water was almost transparent and still, I could see a medium-sized fish in the water but it was not interested in my bait- an earthworm. Prakash’s father told me to change the bait to a shrimp. And lo and behold! In the next moment the fish was in my possession. He taught us the finer aspects of preparing the baits, making us aware of the food preferences of different types of fish which no book will provide you.
Fishing was a pastime for me. For them, it was livelihood. At the end of the day, his father would sell the day’s catch in the market and buy other essential stuff for the family.
Prakash lived in the downtown area (Buxi Bazar) of Cuttack. Many evenings, he would come to our home to study. My mother was very fond of him and would feel sad if Prakash didn’t visit us on a festival day. She would serve the savories and wait to see the happiness of the boy enjoying the sweetmeats.
We moved to Bhubaneswar in 1972 when my father got transferred. It was a big setback for him which I realized much later. His family’s economic condition was deteriorating very fast and he had to drop out in Standard-XI ( High School Certificate year- 1974) as he couldn’t pay his examination fees. (This he told me when we met in 2019).
This setback, however, brought out the noble instincts in him as he decided to dedicate his life for the education of slum and orphan children. All the profit from his tea stall was used for the small school he was running.
During our conversation at home, I noticed that Prakash was getting a number of phone calls and these were from various people whose relations needed blood transfusion. He had maintained a directory of voluntary blood donors who on short notice could reach the hospital and donate blood for the needy.
I asked him to stay with me for a few days so that I could take him around Delhi and surrounding areas. His reply: “My children are there”, meaning the children of the school he was running.
Prakash was maintaining a frenetic lifestyle, especially after receiving the Padmashree. He was invited by many Management Institutes across the country to speak on Leadership. Sometime last year he suffered a stroke, recovered from it, though not completely. I spoke to him a few months ago and assured that I would visit him once the situation arising out of COVID-19 gets better.
Prakash’s daughter, Bhanupriya, is a bright girl with an entrepreneurial acumen.
It is now on her shoulder to take her father’s legacy forward.
My heartfelt condolences to the family and may God grant my friend, Prakash, eternal peace.
(The author was the Principal Spokesperson of the Government of India)