Monday, May 24, 2010

Was it God?

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.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

THAT Kind of Sleep

It was a sweltering 43 degrees C (about 109 degrees F), although the AC in my car was trying its best to convince me otherwise, with mixed success. It was not just the heat, it was heat plus the humidity, which meant that stepping out for even a minute would have disastrous consequences for you and your mood. On top of that, there was the customary Delhi traffic, spreading all sorts of pollution, looking at which every environmentalist would have poured heaps of scorn, disguised as concern.

I was stuck behind a truck, and was contemplating how Chetna would have castigated me on my driving style. As things stood, I was about two or three feet away from the truck, which offered me some shade in the July 2009 heat plus humidity, but which was obviously not enough to calm the nerves of my car’s engine, which was already screaming at me to turn the AC off.

Then it happened.

Traffic in Delhi is as fickle as the weather in London. You will be struck in a traffic jam for an hour and when you reach the end, most often you will not find a reason for it. You will be fuming at the idiot who caused the jam, only to reach the end of the jam and find no apparent reason for it. The net effect of it is that one moment you are creeping along at a snail’s pace, and the next moment the road is wide open, tempting you to put your foot to the pedal.

As the truck peeled away in front of me, I saw the contents in the back of the truck. It was household stuff. Apparently a family was moving, and this was their household effects being transferred. It was typical household furniture, and some stuff packed into boxes. What was intriguing, however, were two men, sound asleep on top of these boxes.

I had no intention of remaining stuck behind the truck, so I overtook it at the first instance. However, even as I overtook and even today, I cannot shake off the sight of the two men asleep on the top of those two boxes, oblivious to the sweltering heat, oblivious to the pollution, and of course oblivious to the fact that they were stuck in the traffic for a good two hours.

Now, you may be right in saying that the sleep was probably drug induced, but I think a large contributor to the sleep was the labor that must have gone into putting that household stuff into the back of the truck. Those two men must have toiled in the heat, probably carried the stuff from an apartment which was God knows how many floors up. They may be taking it probably to an apartment which was God knows how many floors up. Someone must have cursed them if the bed had touched a wall on its way down. Or they may have been abused while loading the stuff onto the truck. And to top it all, they were probably going to be paid a fraction of what they actually deserved. In that fraction they may have responsibilities of their own - perhaps a family to feed, or a loan to repay, or anything, which they carried out with varying degrees of success.

But at THAT moment, when they were asleep on the boxes in the truck, none of this mattered. They were going through what we actually yearn for everyday of our lives - a period of pure, unadulterated, beautiful sleep. The sweltering heat, the curses of the world, the fact that they were going to be paid a fraction of what they deserved, or the responsibilities their own small world had no effect on these two men’s sleep. This was a sleep that was the result of hard labor. This was a sleep that was immune from all that could come in its way. And this was a sleep these men probably experienced every time they lay down to sleep.

How many of us can say the same of ourselves? We work in conditions that are supposed to make our life comfortable, or in some cases luxurious. And yet, when we put our heads to the pillow at night in our air-conditioned comforts, how many times have we ever experienced sleep like the one that those two men, sleeping in those sleep-hostile conditions went through?

More importantly, how many times WILL we ever experience THAT kind of sleep?

I would like to think that the answer is in our control…

Sunday, May 9, 2010

We are to Blame

Ideally it should have been like any other day. And it seemed like it was going to be any other day. I woke up at 6, prepared milk for Anhad, got him ready for school, and prepared breakfast while Chetna combed his hair and tied his turban. That done, I saw Anhad off to school and went for my morning walk.

And that is where it went on a different track.

Typically, I take my bath after I come back. As I was preparing for my daily cleansing routine I started hearing some noises. At first they were abuses. That was interesting. You see, my house is on a main road, and it is not uncommon for people to fight over minor to major issues (You are on the wrong side. You don’t know how to drive; that kind of stuff).

Except that these abuses escalated into shrieks. I rushed to the balcony to see what was wrong, and there full on in sight of about fifty people, two people were beating up two people with iron rods.

I don’t know what was happening or had happened, but loosely it must have been like this. There were two buses, and it is common for buses to fight for positions at a bus stop in order to get maximum passengers. This is especially true if the buses are following more or less similar routes. Competition is intense and it often spills over into a fight like the one I was witnessing now.

My mother came rushing out asking what was happening. I said that I didn’t know but I was going to put a stop to this. So, still in my jogging tracks I ran down the four flights of stairs and up the ramp that led to the gate outside my house.

By the time I reached, all that was left of the scene was two bleeding staff members of a bus. Both of them had been hit on the head and blood was flowing freely. There was blood on their grey uniforms, on the grey road, and elsewhere.

What surprised me was the attitude of the people. I asked where the people who beat them up were. They said that they had left already.

“What?” I said, “And you were standing there, doing nothing?”

“What can we do? This happens every day. And they had iron rods in their hands”, was the reply.

I was flabbergasted. Fifty people were seeing two people getting beaten up by another two, and yet no one had the guts to even try and stop them. Not only that, those two who had beaten them up, were very easily allowed to get away.

“The police should have stopped them”, said one.

“It was their (the staff who got beaten up) mistake”, said another.

I don’t know who did what to whom. Maybe the staff that got beaten up was guilty. Maybe the staff that beat them was excessive. But by remaining passive and mute spectators, the passengers in both the buses were condoning the wrongs made by both the parties.

I have the following questions for the passengers of both the buses:
  1. You knew what was going to happen, and yet you allowed it to happen. Why?
  2. You all were going somewhere at that time in the morning. All of you had places to reach. I am sure that a time must have been committed by you about when you would be reaching. AND YET, you all had the time for this unnecessary and totally avoidable botheration?
  3. You gave what you think are very valid reasons - “They had iron rods”, “They deserved it”, “Where is the police?” et al, what if it was YOU who was getting beaten up? What would you think of the public watching you and thinking it was none of their business?

Against this backdrop, should we really blame the government for 26/11 or the Kandahar hijack?