[You KNEW I would write about you one day, Johnny…! If I see your eyes filling up as you read this… I swear I’ll swim the Arabian Sea and come over to twist your silly neck for you. Yes, Johnny… I remember I can’t swim! Don’t you DARE get maudlin on me!! Now wipe that grin off your face and read.]
I see everyone going ga-ga over Valentine Day and their valentines. Despite the ‘sena’ and their clones. Sometimes I think the Senas and their clones are in cahoots with the entire machinery that benefits from the celebrations. Ahh… the world and its twisted wheelin’ and dealin’. Pbbbbttttttt!!!!
For three years now, I have wanted to write about Johnny. But he wouldn’t let me. This time, he cant do anything but gnash his teeth from across the Arabian Sea. If you hear thunder and lightening on the west coast and no clouds, you’ll know its only Johnny reading this again.
Johnny is a Kenyan. He landed on my doorstep someday in August 2003. He was the friend of a neighbor who had worked with me. After finishing his MCom exam he had enrolled for a computer course and was able to understand nothing there. So his friend, my neighbor, told him to meet me. Imagine a shiny clean, well-built gentleman smiling politely on my door-step. I tell you, the man had GUTS. Why…? Oh… you see… those days I was rather a ferocious lil beast. I mean you never, but NEVER, rang my bell and try to ingratiate yourself into my presence asking for help. ESPECIALLY if you were short of the Gandhis. Nope. You did NOT. Else you dealt with the consequences. It was that simple.
So here was Johnny, freshly back from morning Mass. Looking, or so he thought, saintly enough to quell my homicidal tendencies. For… would you believe it… he dared to come even though my neighbor had told him how it would go for him. I told you, the man had guts.
I was knee deep in systems that day. I had 3 that time… and all of them with their innards strewn all over… getting cleaned up. In the midst of it all… this guy comes. I opened the door and he said he was John… friend of Alex. I ADORE Alex and so couldn’t glare at him squiggle eyed. Moreover I had a couple of RAM cards in my hand so couldn’t really damage him without damaging them. He came in and sat down. I got back to work distractedly and he began talking, telling me what he needed. I heard him out and discussed the thing with him at length. Ultimately, I told him what I will charge him. When he didn’t speak for a full sixty seconds, I knew how it was with him. I told him I will teach him if he would type out my training material… which I had begun writing by hand.
He was batting out the material next afternoon. Unfortunately, he didn’t know computers much. Moreover, I am a bloody grammar nazi-fiend when it comes to document formatting. In two weeks and and couple of real solid (read brutal) feedbacks, he had got the point. I wish there was a coy way of telling you this… but… I am not good at the coy stuff… so I’ll tell you straight out. He not only typed… he read. He not only read… he understood. Not didn’t only understand… he discussed and sought clarification. In the process, the nut got impressed with me. He had never read anything like it in his life. When he understood, he told me the things I was writing about were the things that people needed to hear and be taught. He forgot that he came to learn computers. He fell in love with the work I was doing and became my first promoter and biggest champion.
He began spending more time in my institute. He began taking on additional responsibility. We began to discuss the topics I wrote on. In the course of the discussions, we learnt each other. The one thing I loved in him more than anything else was that he was not afraid of me. One day we were arguing about something… really going at it hammer and tongs… and he told me one thing which I will hug to myself always. He said, “I am not here to agree with you. I am your friend… you can hate me… but that will not stop me from telling you that I think you are wrong.” Even today I remember how he had stood in front of me while I sat in my office seething with annoyance. I remember his quiet voice, I remember his stance, I can see the expression in his eyes. That was the day I knew I had found a staunch friend. That was the day I took him into my soul. I knew that I had met someone who was true and utterly loyal. The truth and the loyalty was born not in response to my person, but in admiration for the work I was doing. As long as I would remain true to that work, he would be ready to kill for me.
He became a part of my family. He guarded my children, my institute, my systems and me with fanatical ferociousness. We trusted each other totally. If I am ever on the 10th floor of a burning building and can’t see the ground because of the smoke… I will jump from the window only if Johnny tells me to jump because he will catch me. I may doubt the validity of his arguments- and curse him and STAMP on him and call him names- but I can never doubt his intention. Moreover, he is incapable of doing anything to hurt me. I don’t know when he and I became WE.
The bond that built between him and my kids makes me want to go down on my knees and thank God a million times a day. One day I was in class while Johnny kept my 3 year old son engaged. My son was in the institute because he was sick. It was when we reached home that my son told me that he had not been able to control himself and had soiled all his clothes thrice in the 2 hours I was in class. When I asked him who cleaned him up, I expected him to say it was his maid. But he said it was Johnny.
When I found Lavanya had a serious problem with dyslexia I broke down completely. On top of all I was already carrying, this new challenge was more than I could take. It was Johnny who scolded me and got me so deep into research that I had no time to worry. When I developed the Dyslexia Remedial Training, he became my first trainee. It was he who taught Lavanya. It is because of him that she has joined school again.
When my eldest one was in 9th she began throwing tantrums because I wouldn’t send her to coaching classes like her other classmates and friends. I knew she was too intelligent to need coaching. By the time she came to 10th, she saw that I would not budge… even if she failed. She knew she will have to study… but it was already Dec… with exams coming up in March. It was Johnny who stayed up night and day with her, encouraging her, nurturing her, giving her hope and confidence that she will do well. He woke up when she did… he slept when she did. He was her mother and nanny and cheerleader. She got 80% marks… and only then she understood why I didn’t let her join coaching classes.
The kids could disobey me, but if he told them to do something, they could never refuse. No matter what it was, nor how much they hated it.
When I went selling my training programs with him, he was worried. He didn’t want me to to go with him, knowing the narrow minded society we lived in. I told him I will worry about people’s opinion when they start feeding me and my kids. Funnily enough, I never saw that it made any difference in the long run. Whenever I was speaking, whether in a training session or in front of a client, I would always find the exact document I needed at that moment pushed into my hand. We made a formidable team because we were completely in sync always. There were innumerable times when we would go to work on a troublesome staff member… or trainee… or client. I would be raving and ranting while Johnny would be pouring oil over troubled waters. I don’t think many will ever realize the treatment they were given.
There was one time a client planned to gyp me out of the training fee he owed me. We went to talk with him, Johnny and I. When the poor man saw us both planted with quiet finality in his waiting area, he sent the cheque across in 10 mins. Later his PA told us the gentleman got scared, thinking we’ll pitch tents and live in his reception area forever.
Johnny was the most patient man I have ever met. His tact, his understanding, his easy going nature made people warm up to him automatically. He was one person who made himself very easy to lift. I have seen the pleasure it gives people to do things for him… primarily because he never ever made them feel guilty if they didn’t want to help. There would be no change in his feeling and regard for them. To win his complete devotion all you have to do is be a person of impeccable integrity. He could always smell out the phonies. He had an amazing capacity for joy. No matter what the circumstances, he could always make himself happy and contented. You could never be sad around him. He could take me from copious tears to giggles in 30 seconds flat. I promise you, I am not exaggerating.
The first 3 years he was with me, I went through the lousiest financial low of my life. 3 years… which I would not have survived if he hadn’t kept me laughing non-stop. That was the time I wrote the most… with the deepest intensity… the clearest perception. His faith in God… and his mother… have made me cry more times than I can count. When there were snakes in the house, he went at them armed with nothing but a stick and did not rest until he had killed them both. Wonder of wonders, even my parents- who always hate anyone close to me- began to love him deeply. And why not…? Don’t we all love life…?
I could write about him forever. He was with us for 6 years with a 24×7 interaction. That’s a lifetime, far more than what you get with friends. The last 2 years of those six years, he lived with us at home. In Dec 2008 he went back to Kenya. Leaving so much of himself planted in all of us that we sense his continued presence with us each day. When my son is too naughty, I scold him in a few words of Swahili Johnny taught me. When I see my eldest one studying, her brow furrowed in concentration, I see the confidence he planted in her. When I see Lavanya dancing on stage with total faith in her capability, I see his hand on her head. When I feel overwhelmed, I hear his voice discussing my options with me. When I goof up, I hear his amused chuckle telling me what a mujinga (stupid, in Swahili) I was. When I have a headache I cannot bear, I feel his hand on my forehead. He demonstrated love with every breath he drew and taught me what love was.
Please Johnny, will you be my valentine…?
Update: As I’ve written above, Johnny returned to Kenya in December 2008. In April 2010, he had a stroke which paralyzed him for a few weeks. In the next few months, he recovered completely. In January 2013, he had another stroke. He called me and as always, I tried to call him back. I couldn’t connect with him. I kept trying to call him for ten days. I must have made over 600 calls in that duration. Nothing… I couldn’t get through to him. I gave up after ten days.
On the night of February 13th 2013- EXACTLY three years after I wrote this piece, Alex called me to ask if I have heard from Johnny. I said I had but hadn’t been able to speak to him. Then Alex told me that my Johnny was no more. He had succumbed to the stroke.
The best friend I had, the brother I never had, the rock the I leaned on even when he was not physically present, the shoulder I cry on even today when he is no more in this world, has passed on to a better world. But the seeds of his laughter still bear fruit- and always will.
Death can’t take you away from me Johnny. You are my valentine. There will never be any negotiation on that.
Written on: 13th Feb 2010