I once learnt a lesson in Dubai that I won’t forget in a hurry. Of itself that isn’t very surprising. I am always learning things. I need to. But on this occasion it was from a young 20-year-old and until it happened I had not realised how wise he was. Like many of you, I assume that 20-year-olds can be engaging company, fun, even intelligent. But wise? No, that’s not a quality I usually associate with this age group. You’ll soon see how wrong I was.
I was visiting the city state on a speaking assignment and the first moment I had free I used to go shopping. But being a stranger the organisers asked a young trainee accountant to accompany me. Nitin Angurala was his name.
Now I am a slow, even irritating, shopper. I linger in boutiques I don’t intend to buy anything from. I pause outside display windows staring at stuff I don’t want. And even when I’m buying I do so uncertainly. I change my mind, opt for something completely different and then, just as the bill has been made up, change my mind.
Consequently no one I know will go shopping with me. Nitin broke the mould. For over four hours he accompanied me uncomplainingly. When I returned to the same shop three times he generously concocted reasons to justify my doing so. In fact, he behaved as if this was perfectly normal.
So unaccustomed am I to such behaviour that it took me a while to realise how different Nitin was. When I did my first response was to do something to thank him. So I decided to buy him a present. Anyone else in the world would have accepted it. Not Nitin.
“No Sir,” he said when I tried to give him a small bottle of aftershave. “Please don’t do that. It’ll spoil everything.” “I only want to say thank you.” “But you’re putting a price on it” he replied. “I’ve had fun. I’ve enjoyed myself. This will make me feel different.”
Initially, I thought he was shy. He’s a well brought up young man and I assumed he did not want to accept presents. So I tried to persuade him.
“This way you’ll remember me,” I said, trying to be crafty. “That’s why I want you to have this.”
“Sir, this way I’ll remember the aftershave” he replied smiling. “And that also means that if I don’t give you anything you’ll forget me!”
No matter what I said Nitin wouldn’t budge. Ultimately I conceded defeat and we returned the aftershave. Yet as we walked out of the shop I couldn’t stop admiring Nitin. In his position I would have responded very differently.
I don’t think I’ve ever said no to a present. Occasionally I may have made the odd polite fuss but I’ve never adamantly refused.
Far more importantly, Nitin’s behaviour reminded me of an aphorism I repeatedly heard as a child but never really understood. It’s the sort of thing parents parrot at every conceivable opportunity but kids largely ignore. Nitin’s behaviour brought it meaningfully to life.
“You know the problem with you?” I could hear Mummy saying in my mind’s ear. “You know the price of everything but the value of nothing.” On that Saturday in Dubai, during the heat of the afternoon, Nitin taught me what this glib saying actually means. It was humbling, no doubt, but it was also uplifting.