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A tale of two cities

As a consulting engineer, I have had the opportunity to travel to different countries for technical meetings and assignments. I had many interesting encounters, but two I cherish the most. In 1987, I was in Milan, Italy, to witness performance tests of major equipment for a 500 MW power plant. After the tests, I planned to travel to Genoa, an Italian port city, to meet a prospective client.

I arrived at the train station early on a bitterly cold morning. I was wearing a suit and overcoat and had my suitcase and travel bag with me. As I was about to board the train, three well-dressed men rushed out of the compartment to help me with my suitcase. They were polite and spoke good English. I was hesitant at first, but they seemed friendly and said they were co-passengers. I let them help me. They carried my suitcase to my seat and placed it on the upper deck.

The compartment was nearly empty, with only an elderly lady knitting in a window seat. There were still 20 minutes left for the train to depart, and they asked if I would like to join them for coffee outside. I declined, and they got off the train, saying they would return soon.

The train moved from the platform, but the men didn’t return. Then I realised my wallet was gone. I had been pickpocketed!

I had no money or train ticket. But, fortunately, my passport and other uncashed travellers cheques were intact, as they were in a different pocket of my jacket. I explained my situation to the elderly lady, and she offered to buy me a new ticket from the train conductor. She also helped me file a complaint at the police station in Genoa. When we parted ways at Genoa, I thanked her for her kindness and compassion. She was truly a God-sent saviour!

A decade later, in 1997, I was in the Philippines when my company was bidding on a power plant rehabilitation project. After visiting the project site in Batan, I was in Manila to collect details on commercial aspects from NPC, the owner, and other agencies.

I hired a taxi for my local travels in Manila. On the first day, after my meetings, I returned to my taxi. The taxi driver, an ordinary-looking Filipino in his sixties, asked where I was from. I said, “India.” He seemed pleased and asked if I knew Anand. I thought, as Russians once loved film actor Raj Kapoor, he must be a movie buff, answered affirmatively, and continued that Dev Anand was a popular actor. He shook his head in disapproval and pulled out a chessboard from the glove box. Suddenly it flashed, and I uttered, GM Viswanathan Anand! He nodded his head with a smile and said Anand was a brilliant player.

I was surprised and delighted. Here was an ordinary taxi driver who was a fan of my country’s greatest chess player! We chatted about chess until my hotel, and I was touched by his passion for the game.

Lessons from the trips are humbling and encompass humanity and the importance of kindness and compassion. They also retell the facts of life: don’tbe afraid to ask for help from strangers when in distress, as there are also many good people in the world; and ordinary-looking people can be extraordinary in some aspects.

(Published 15 December 2023, 19:28 IST)

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