aarwen

To Give or Not to Give..

thinking

Many many years ago, so many that I no longer remember how many, I remember writing an essay for my school magazine. During a train journey, a thin little girl had sung while holding her infant brother in her arms. The coins that people threw into her tin bowl had held strange haunting music of their own.

I must have seen beggars before, but this girl had felt real. Real enough that I had written about her. My teachers had showered praise on me. The star student, who sympathized with the poor. My article was published, but all the praise had left me feeling guilty.

You know how all you need is the background of a world war to skyrocket your chance into the Oscars.. or at least that’s the theory I suspect film creators adhere to. Easier still, have your heroine die of cancer for that eternal love story, bringing in readers and tears galore. Was I similar, pulling at heartstrings for my academic success?

The essay had left a sour taste for years to come. So has the taste faded enough that I am writing about this again? Not really… but, publishing online gives a sense of security in the anonymity. Which pretty much translates to, “fingers crossed my old teachers don’t find me here.”

With Slumdog Millionaire it was inevitable that questions on India’s slums would be a hot topic of conversation. Sometimes it is hard to explain that the India shown there isn’t my India. Or to be precise, it is my India only I don’t see that India. As one grows in India our shield against that poor, hungry and helpless mass of the population also grows.

The thousands of faces pleading for some money, wailing babies, half-clothed kids and sad lifeless expressions end up blurring. If I noticed every young girl carrying her brother, my life would be maybe even more painful than theirs.

But here, in a much more affluent land, after all these years, its become more noticeable. I asked myself why, and ultimately, have an acceptable answer.

Since the number of homeless people begging for their survival is less, they are no longer a faceless mass. That old veteran at the signal with a cardboard cutout asking for work stays with me even after the lights turn green and my car speeds away. There is a man who sells newspapers, wears a leather jacket and feeds pigeons on another signal. Then there are the inevitable females with posters claiming their kids need food. On yet another signal, when it drizzles, sits a female under a plastic sheet with her dog.

I want to stop and give them money. But, I barely do. Why?

Apart from the obvious reason, I don’t carry cash with me, there are more pertinent psychological reasons. What if the car driver behind me thinks badly of me for encouraging begging? What if a co-worker near my office sees me and realizes I am gullible enough to believe a sob story? Because surely any money I give will end up in the hands of a drug dealer, right? And I can’t give them work obviously, because I want to help but not get murdered in my backyard, right?

I don’t have an answer to why I don’t give when I want to. But, there is one fact I have an unshakable belief in. It’s easy to be kind when it doesn’t hurt to give. Things get truly interesting when you have to choose between being kind to others or kind to yourself (hypothetical self-image preservation included).

As a kid when I would give, there was triumphant fearlessness that the universe would see me as kind. Now I don’t give, because I fear the world would see me as too kind.

Pic credit one and only Bill Watterson

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3 Comments

  • Reply
    indrani robbins
    March 9, 2019 at 10:49 am

    nice, very nice, ponder. the difference in economic well being that we’ve all seen bothers me a lot. it pops into my head at the strangest of moments. we’ve grown up seeing abject, desperate poverty… beggars, their hollow, seeking eyes, sometimes opaque like there are no feelings left… i remember a bunch of kids near our place in mumbai, most of them were the children of a woman who worked the streets, a prostitute. there was this boy called prakash, with the coolest of postures as he sat leaning against the building next door, on the footpath, drinking his tea. he must have been 7 or 8 at the time, this was twenty three years ago. i always struggled with the thought he would never really get anywhere… he looked bright. he sat like a king, one leg stuck out, the other crossed over it. he had a spark in his eyes, the dirt on his face, his rags… nothing dimmed it. but i knew one day, life would. his sister smiled like an angel when i gave her something, she knew the worst swear words apparently and used them to rile the watchman who was unkind to them… shooing them away. i remember wanting to laugh when he complained to me. then feeling wretched because that’s the kind of stuff a child will learn living on the streets, fending for themselves. no protection, no shield between you and world. the drugs you mention, they’ve reached indian streets too. there’s something numbing about seeing a young mother wrapped in a limp saree that has lost its colour in the hell of street life, carrying a clinging scrawny child in her arms, her eyes glazed. people have told me, don’t give her money, she’ll get drugs for herself and that infant too. so much inequality in this world. so much pain. not just on the streets… in slums, in villages, among the people struggle to live. yet, there is as though a wall between all our worlds. when i don my kanjeevaram, how often do i think of all this? is it because i am shallow? or is this the way we learn to live? compartmentalising? with all our talk of economy and counting billionaires, i think almost half the population of the world don’t get enough to eat and people still die of starvation. we’ve got something very wrong… i don’t think anywhere else in the animal or plant world, this sort of difference exists. all that i write or say or feel or consider important, somewhere is just limited to a tiny fragment of humanity… not so big deal really. thanks for making me think.

  • Reply
    rhea sinha
    March 14, 2019 at 11:11 am

    Wrote this after reading your plant thing Indi Di. Before that was conflicted if this would resonate with anyone, reading yours made me feel like posting anyway. Your memory of the family makes me realize the ‘compartmentalizing’ That goes on is real. Happens to me, to you and probably many others. Sometimes faces remain…. but only sometimes.

    Because on a daily basis we only think of some portions of the world, universe, society doesn’t make them small. Yes tiny things in the grand scheme of things but big to us. Reminds me of the quote “just because it’s happening in your head doesn’t mean it’s not real”.

    • Reply
      indrani robbins
      March 16, 2019 at 9:00 am

      glad you wrote.

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