First things first. I am not the most religious of persons, though I do follow some tenets of Sikhism (not cutting your hair, staying away from alcohol) very seriously. I am not an atheist, but I do believe in everything having a rational explanation. My reasoning towards existence of God is very simple - the chances that I am writing this post here and the fact that you are reading it are far too minimal to be left to probability. So, there has to be a Higher Being that made this all possible. But anyway, this is a matter for another post, and I will cover it there.
The incident that I am referring to happened on 7th March, 2008. I remember the day because it was my Dad’s birthday, and I was planning to get a cake for him. It was a subdued celebration in light of the fact that my Dad’s younger brother had expired that February, and so we had not got any fancy gifts for him. It was going to be a simple cake cutting ceremony.
I chose Maxim’s at our Kailash Colony market to buy his cake. Part of the reason is that it is very close to our home, so the cake stays fresh when I take it home. Another part is that they sell lots of other yummy goodies, so you can have a bite or two when you are there. You should really try out their Garlic Chicken sandwich, out of this world. But I digress.
I parked my car some distance away from Maxim’s, and walked the few meters that separated me from the pastry shop. As I reached the place, I saw the woman.
She was not very old, probably about 35-40. She looked perfectly capable of doing the basic tasks a human being could carry out to earn a daily living. But for some reason here she was, sitting by the pillar outside the shop and begging for alms. Maxim’s is a kind of upscale pastry shop, and typically attracts the upper elite strata of the society. However, these upper elite are not the most generous when it comes to beggars. They are rather contemptuous of them, and I would not be wrong in saying that at that moment, I felt nothing but contempt for the woman as she begged me for money. However, it was not only the fact that she was begging that was the cause of contempt. She had a daughter, or at least a 15 year old female accomplice who was also begging, albeit on foot. I was disgusted. To beg when you are perfectly capable of working is one thing, but to get others to beg so as to show them how to make easy money is quite another.
It was with these mixed feelings of disgust and contempt that I entered the shop. At that moment, I had exactly 310 Rupees with me. This is important in light of what transpired. I ordered the cake which was worth Rs 244 inclusive of taxes. The person at the counter duly noted my order and issued me a slip for Rs 244, plus Rs 56 in change, for the three 100 rupee notes I gave him.
As soon as I got my cake and prepared to leave, something caught my eye. Actually it was my nose that caught the fragrance and then my eyes that saw what was coming, but that is not important. What was important was that there was this tray of freshly prepared apple strudels that had come straight out of the oven. And as I watched, the person on duty attached a price tag on it - Rs 28. That was half the amount of change I had in my hand at that very moment. So I could buy two with the amount of money I had.
I don’t remember the exact sequence of events but it must have been something like this:
- I saw the strudels, each priced at Rs 28.
- I realized that I had exactly Rs 56 on me as change in my hand.
- I took the decision of buying two of those strudels.
- Somewhere along the line, I decided to give away the two apple strudels to the beggar sitting outside.
Till today, I don’t recall what came first - my decision to buy two apple strudels or the thought of helping for the beggar outside. But what I do know is this, after I bought the apple strudels and I gave them to the woman outside, I felt a strange kind of happiness. I cannot describe that feeling, probably because I am not always that good, but it was the feeling of happiness you get after carrying out an act of random kindness.
I have often wondered if on that day God was sending me a message in His Own way. Probably, it was His way of saying - don’t give them what they want (money); give them what they need (food, clothing etc). I am not sure, but what I do know is that since that day I have stopped giving out alms to beggars. Instead I buy or give them something to eat, or I simply refuse them if I don’t have anything. I don’t know if what I am doing is right or wrong, but I cannot help noticing the disappointment with which beggars take what I offer them.
I have discussed this many times with my friends and family. Some people say it is the right thing, others people say that I will only encourage them to a life of crime, since they are not getting what they want. Regardless, I am not sure that on 7th March, 2008, if it was God who sent me a message. I also don’t know how many messages He has sent me, and how many have I listened to.
On a closing note, I was left with exactly Rs 10 in my pocket, which I gave to the parking lot attendant. And then I had nothing in my pocket, but a cake in my one hand and car keys in the other.
I do remember Dad enjoying his birthday though.