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