Wednesday, July 10, 2013

For the greater good.

A few days back, a homeless man on the street asked me for money as I was about to step into a restaurant for dinner, and I gave him a dollar.
 Just as I was about to get in, I caught a look of semi disapproval on my companion’s face, and I asked what the matter was.
Here’s the gist of what I got: most of the people on the streets are homeless because they choose not to work, they are able bodied and not old, so by giving them money, I am just making them lazy.
What about children? (I haven’t seen kids begging on the streets here, but such conversations almost automatically take us to India, hence my question) . “With children, it is even worse, because you are teaching them that there can be an easy way out at a very young age, and that they don’t need to work,” my friend said.
What if it is someone really in need? “None of the money (in India) goes to those begging anyway, their pimps will take it all away from them, so what is the point? For the greater good, we must not give them money."
This is not the first time I’ve been hit with that logic, I  give out money to those asking for it if I have cash on me. I give food if people ask and don't  really understand how people can keep gorging on their sundaes and burgers while shooing away underfed kids latching on to them at the same time, children claiming to be hungry for days. Never mind if the claim is right or wrong, they obviously need help!
So,  I’ve been badgered with the “why are you doing this” question for forever now.

There’s a simple answer to why I do it: because I feel bad that while I’m going to spend $30 on one meal there’s someone who might not have eaten for the day. So if I can, I will.

There’s also the not-so-simple answer, which is that I do not agree with the “logic” in the “what are you doing” line of thinking. Just because while I know a lot of people (especially in America) might just be begging to raise enough money so they can buy their next hit, there are many who are genuinely in need and I would rather give people the benefit of doubt.
Now I obviously don’t suggest helping shady looking men lounging in the subway station looking visibly stoned and potentially inviting trouble, but that man on the street corner looking hungry?
 I also don’t really live under a rock, so I know the horror stories of how they force their kids to wail to make people give them money, I know how some people cut off limbs off young kids so that they “look needier” and I know that many of those on the roads are drifters who have cut class.
But beyond the granular details of why exactly are they begging, can anyone deny that no matter what the reason, they are doing it because they need help? So yes, they cut off the young boys legs so that his situation tugs at some Ritchie Rich’s heartstrings and brings him a 50 instead of a 10.  I’d count it as a criminal offence (same as I would when my classmate’s dad broke his arm when he beat him up in standard 6), but don’t you see the difference here?
The boy lost his legs for it. Who in their right mind would do that if they had an option? And if the deed is already done, how on earth is it “more helpful” to not part with the little money they are asking for, for which he lost his limbs is the first place? Do you really think starving them to death is going to make their manager (or whatever the term is) any less cruel, instead of their finding other meaner ways to earn money?

Of course there are practical considerations. I can’t help every single person asking me because a) I don’t make enough to be charitable on that scale, and b) I traded cash for the convenience of cards ever since I got to operate my own bank account. So many times I mumble a “I don’t have anything on me”. The post, I guess, is more about the intent. Or the lack of it.

Here’s another story I’ll tell you. Stone ages ago when I was in college, an old man wearing worn out but a a neat pajama-kurta came up to me and my friends and asked for money to catch a cab. His story was made of text-book con artist stuff: he claimed he knew the Principal of our college (he knew Father Principal's name, but then so does half of the city), he was an ex student, he was in the neighbourhood on an errand and he lost his wallet so now he’s stranded and can’t go back home. So will we help him? He will return the money the next day.

Like everyone else, I saw through the story, but gave him 20/-. That’s all I had on me, saving my own bus ride home. If you were born after 1990 like my kid brother, you would find that silly but believe me, once upon a time we did go to college with all of 25/- in our wallets. And that covered minor trips to local eateries at the back gate of my college.
Anyway, none of my other friends gave him anything and one girl admonished me severely after the old man had thanked me and gone away. “Don’t you see he’s lying? Which self respecting elderly man asks young college girls for help if he really just lost his wallet? You lost your wallet last month, did you beg?”
Of course I knew he was lying, but is it really that difficult to understand why I would still give him the money? A well spoken greying old man is reduced to conning kids less than half his age for a mere tenner or twenty. I doubt that was a matter of choice. He might have been an employee at some factory or firm that closed shutters. He might be lying for food. It might not have been anything sinister, but I doubt he’d do what he did if he had other options. So, even if he was lying, I played along. And I'm hoping those you would thought like my friend in the first instance, will now understand why I say if this happens once more, I'll do the same thing again..

“So if he is in need why can he not just beg? Why lie? I hate liars,” said my friend. Right, because it is that easy to swallow your pride and share your misfortune with a bunch of giggly college girls and unfeeling strangers who are not likely to help in any case. Or is it because it is infinitely better and fulfilling to stand on a high pedestal and be charitable, than to help without the fanfare associated with it?

On my last visit home, I gave a beggar at a bus stop 50/- because I didn’t have change and she looked needy. I got the usual dose of “tor shobtatey barabari” (You always overdo it). I'm kind of used to that by now (trick is to ignore or smile depending on who you're with and let it slide), but I still find it supremely strange that those who find my giving away 50/-  (I can’t afford to do that regularly, it was a once in a while thing because like I said, she looked like she could use some help and I didn’t have change) are also the ones who would blame the Buffetts, Birlas, Murdochs and Ambanis for  “not doing enough for society”.   Of course they don’t know that many of them actually have made many charitable contributions. But to the question of “not enough”, here’s my rider: absolutely for the reason of argument, let’s say 50/- to you is 50,000/- to a very rich man. Meaning he will spend 50,000 with the same nonchalance or thrift you would 50/-. If   you can’t bear to part with your share or even bear the sight of another person parting with it for a good cause, why do you expect a rich man to part with his 50k?
And shouldn't you only grumble about other more famous men of not doing their fair share only when you know you do yours well?

I work with a voluntary non-profit organization that has adopted a few schools in various parts of rural India and tries to keep them going.  We buy them supplies (think chalk, notebooks, pens through mid-day lunch), counsel the teachers (not many well educated and qualified candidates want to get posted to rural public schools, so they often get very under qualified teachers) and now we have also started a campaign asking people who can to "adopt a child".

No prizes for guessing how much that has flourished. Things have come to such a head that we might have to let a couple of our schools go, because we don’t have enough money to give them. I once wrote an email to all my friends and acquaintances asking them to help, explaining that it was not for my benefit and that a onetime donation could cost less than a mug of weekend beer. Very few did, and I got a lot of “I gave money the last time you guys were asking.”
Right, because parting with $10 more than once a year is going to make them destitute. Not to mention the vanity in announcing how they paid up once before.

And what is it we sing at all prayer meets? Par dukhkhey upkaar karey toh yeh mann abhimaan na aaney rey.

I wonder if it is in the chasing of "money" and "career" ( Sir says, none of us are actually making any serious money or have that important a career anyway, we just delude ourselves into thinking this will get us somewhere in life) that has made us all insensitive. So much so that not only do we not help others in need, we come up with brilliant excuses to justify why we shouldn't.
Only, I sometimes wonder if these reasons ever come back to haunt people sometimes, when they are with themselves and with their thoughts? Or have we killed that inner voice absolutely and completely?

where the mind is without fear and the head is held high..

where the mind is without fear and the head is held high..