Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Changing Lives - One Person at a Time

I vividly remember an incident way back to when I was seven years old.  My father and I were at a traffic light in Mumbai.  A young beggar boy (probably in his teens) peered through the window of our taxi, and started reciting his sob story.  His face convulsed in misery as he recounted a nonstop rendition of how he hadn't eaten in days, and that a rupee from me could feed his starving stomach.

I was immediately taken by this young boy's woes.  His sorry face showed no tears, but his matted hair and dirt-streaked face painted the perfect picture of a young boy trapped in hopelessness.  And all it would take is one rupee to morph his sad face into one of temporary hope.  I fished into my pockets and found a one rupee coin.  Before I could place it in the boys waiting palm, my father clasped his huge hand over my thin wrist and brought it down.

"What are you doing?" demanded my father, shifting his irritated gaze between my face and coin.  "Someone asks you for money and you will just give it to him!  Nothing is wrong with this boy!  He is just lazy!  Look at him!  He is hale and hearty - why can't he work?"

I looked at the boy closely.  The boy didn't understand English but his uncertain expression indicated that he knew he was the bone of contention between father and son.  I noticed that even though the boy had successfully forged a sad tone in his voice to supplement his miserable story, there were no tears at all.  And he was a little on the plump side - a little ironic for a boy whose words had almost led me to believe that for him, food was a luxury.

The traffic light changed to green.  Our taxi zoomed ahead leaving the boy to his life and me with a philosophy for the years to come on how to deal with beggars.

When I hit my teens, and my awareness and sensibilities kicked in, I learned of the beggar mafia.  It had been reported that all beggars worked under a 'Dada' (local gangster) to whom they had to give their earnings of the day.  Some reports mentioned that children and people of all ages entered this profession both voluntarily and involuntarily.  Either way, it was a profession that fueled the mafia and did nothing to improve the circumstances of beggars.

This morning, I was returning from Lokhandwala Market in the Andheri Suburb of Mumbai.  At the Adarsh Nagar signal, a young beggar girl (no more than 12) jumped up from the kerb when she saw my rickshaw come to a full stop.  Wrapped around her, in a dirty cloth, was a sleeping infant.

She started a familiar rendition in Hindi - "My child is hungry, saab.  Please give me something, anything so that I can feed her.  I myself have not eaten for two days."

Her words brought back the incident at the signal with the beggar boy, years ago.  After accustoming myself to the flashback, I mildly unleashed a chiding tirade on her.

"You should be ashamed of yourself carrying a little child in the heat just to make some money.  If you choose to do this, then why drag the child along with you?"

She looked at me sadly and said, "Saab, this is my child.  And there is no one else to take care of her.  And I beg because my family needs the money."

"I'll give you Rs. 500 if you're story has any truth to it," I replied and turned ahead.

I expected her to back off, but she remained standing there her sad look piercing into my eyes.

"Come with me, if you don't believe me," she said and walked away.

Her challenge took me by surprise.  Ordinarily, I would have ignored her and gone on home.  But there was something about her innocent face and sadness in her eyes that made me curious.  Besides, it was broad daylight and I doubted that she would be stupid enough to lure me into a situation where I would be roughed up and mugged by older associates.

I paid the autowallah his fare, while he shook his head in disapproval.  The girl walked ahead and I followed her, staying a few feet behind.  She turned around periodically to check if I was still following her.  The faceless baby remained asleep throughout, his/her tiny feet popping out from his/her child-mother's bosom.

Our destination was 500 meters down the road.  An open gutter ran the entire length.  Over the gutter were several shanties (slums).  The makeshift house was big enough only for two people - it was so small.  The girl ducked into one of them and within seconds, pulled out a frail hand along with her attached to a perpetually coughing woman.

"This is my mother," said the girl.  "She is paralyzed waist down.  The doctor said it was blood clots.  My father lives in a chawl in Behram Baug there, but threw us out and took in another woman and her children.  We have no money and I'm the only one to support my mother.  No one will hire me as a servant because I am too young.  This is the only work I can do."

"And the baby?  Where is the father?" I asked, too taken in to employ any tact.

She looked down and kept her gaze fixed on the dirty gutter.  At that moment, it seemed to offer her more solace than my shameless face.

It all came to me in an instant.  This girl didn't know who the father was.  Because her innocence was taken from her against her will and her soul ripped apart in the process - not once but probably several times by different men.

I felt tears welling up in my ears.  I felt foolish.  But my dark glasses hid my shame well.

I had studied an MBA in Sustainability, focusing on both the Environmental and Social Sector.  On the social side, I had studied about all about the poverty traps that kept the impoverished poor along with other social issues plaguing the less privileged the world over.  Armed with that knowledge, I began to look upon India in a different light - and that long-term change could happen only one person at a time.  The Government and charities were offering only short-terms solutions.

After all those case studies, volunteer/community work, late night studying, papers, presentations, exams, non-profit/foundations exposure, and top grades - here I was standing face to face with a girl one-third my age, but whose experiences had made her grow up before her time and see three times as much of life's misery than I had.  Here I was, the typical wary Mumbaikar, reduced to someone who had learned everything in college, but who knew little about the reality behind all those concepts and stories.

On one hand, I felt ashamed for having doubted her.  On the other hand, I was grateful for having opened my eyes into learning about something that every Mumbaikar ordinarily ignores.  I took out a five hundred rupee note and pressed it it into her hand, along with my card.  I told her to call me if she needed any medical assistance for her mother.  She finally allowed her listless expression break into a slight smile and returned the card.

I didn't ask her why but understood.  People in the past may have offered to help her.  But they had either taken advantage of her or just went back on their word.  On seeing her plight, I knew that her long-term solution was money.  I gave her Rs. 1500 more and decided to deliver Rs. 2000 to her personally each month.  It would eat into my monthly budget and I would have to give up on some of my monthly outings.  But she needed basic food more than I needed to eat out.  Hers was a necessity.  Mine was a luxury.  This was the most I could do for her now.  And I sincerely hope that I can do more for her further.  But I know that at the end of the day, our own responsibilities make us lose sight.  And it might happen with me too.

It got me thinking.  We all talk about quitting certain vices - like smoking, drinking, non-veg (I don't consider it a vice:)).  But we always want to do it for ourselves.  How about doing it for others?  How about calculating the money we save, and using that to help someone else - someone we don't even know.  After all, I believe, we can help the less fortunate by helping one person at a time.

No comments:

Post a Comment