By SANGHAMITRA CHAKRABORTY
THERE is a time in your life when your child asks you questions. Lots of questions, repeatedly and relentlessly, about everything they see or hear. They then go on to validate and verify your answers like a keen fact-checker would.
It was during such a time, when our son Josh had learnt to speak full sentences, that he and I were in our car, going somewhere.
We came to a halt at a traffic signal and within moments a young woman, with a grimy face and crumpled clothes, a baby clinging to her side, came up and stood outside our window. It was Delhi summer, our AC was on full blast and the glass was pulled up firmly to not allow the outside to filter in. She held a shapeless metallic bowl in her free hand, and mumbled requests for some help.
I avoided meeting her eyes, but could not help noticing the infant, with its watery eyes and runny nose. Exposed to the unforgiving heat of the mid-day sun, he looked sick and drained. If I was alone, I know I would have missed Josh at that very moment. Stretching my arm out, I gave him a small hug.
Glancing at the ticking signal, I tried to sense if I could grab something from my purse before the light changed, when a shrill voice next to me filled the moment: “Who is she, Ma?”
Josh had noticed the mother and child. Then, as I groped inside my black hole of a bag, another one followed, and then another: “What does she want?”, “Is that her baby?”, “She is telling you something, what is she saying?”
“Wait darling,” I said, rolling down the glass and managing to hand over a little money. It was time to go, and the car engine had started growling, and through it and the honking of vehicles at the busy crossing, I heard her bless my child.
Rolling up the glass, I braced myself to answer the questions from Josh that had piled up, of which there were many. Some were easy, some really hard, but all of them fundamental to the questions of justice and equality. This was perhaps his first encounter with poverty, and certainly his first articulation of astonishment about why the world should be this way.
Where do you and I start giving in a world that is fundamentally unequal? How do we even begin to measure how much is enough, and if we can make a real difference in this sea of disparity?
Mostly we despair at the state of affairs, do what we can or feel discomfort and look away. Every day is a struggle to save ourselves from the harshness that stares us in the face, from outside a car window or families under a flyover, where humans manage to stay alive somehow.
I know someone, let us call him Sumit, who had given one rupee to an old man with a bowl, and picked up 50 paise from it before going away. This was some 30 years ago when everyone was young and broke. Hearing this we laughed out loud, many friends called him a rascal. We laughed perhaps because it was artless and a little mean. But looking back I am struck by his act. He shared what he could, the rest of us did not.
In my years as a journalist I have had the opportunity to meet many individuals who have build campaigns and institutions that are not for profit. They have mobilised resources and funds, fought for justice and changed the lives of people in need. Most of them have chosen a life less comfortable and stable (by our yardsticks of privilege) and dedicated themselves for others.
Though of course there are enough wealthy people who give back generously and without drawing attention to it, I find many of us who live in privilege, worry about giving.
We struggle with questions of who is deserving of help – if the person asking for alms on the street, or one who rings the bell with a signed letter on a peaceful Sunday morning is in genuine need. Our middle class metropolitan mindsets come in the way, and we say sorry. There is sometimes a heaviness inside that lingers until we get busy with the day, and it fades away.
But there are people, who have very little to start with, but decide to give anyway, without thinking too much about how it may make them poorer. They give whatever they can, and make sure they also find others who are willing to contribute to make a little difference. Just like Sumit. Or, the man under the flyover I pass every day, who has taken in a small dog.
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Sanghamitra Chakraborty is the Editor of Reader’s Digest, India. A former Editor at Prevention India, her writings have been featured in Outlook, The Times of India and the Sunday Magazine. And now here, in The Small Print! She loves reading, watching films, playing with her dog and hopes the world will get better in her lifetime.