The other day as I drove out of my house. I came upon a man sleeping in the middle of the road. His ‘jootis’ (A type of open-backed shoe made from camel leather favored by Rajasthani villagers) placed like pillow under his head.
I don’t live in a residential colony, but on a very busy market road. To our right is the city’s favorite petrol pump where everything from two wheelers to auto rickshaws, cars, trucks and buses come to refuel. To the left a large school with more than 1500 students, with their pick-drop vehicles. Also lining the street are banks, insurance companies, big brand showrooms and the hallmark of any road in small town India – cattle and street dogs. Add to this the absence of a sidewalk/ footpath of any kind, zero designated parking space and you get the picture of complete chaos.
I like to scan the road thoroughly before pressing on the pedal. I love pups and too many of them get crushed by speeding cars around here. As I backed out of my driveway, to drop M to music school, I checked the road for sleeping dogs and the likes only to be surprised by this person sleeping on my way (quite literally!).
Horns honked, cows mooed, dogs barked, tyres screeched, hawkers yelled, school children cheered the end of school hours. Amidst all this noise the man slept oblivious to the world around him . Why? I wondered?
As I watched, a motorbike sped past him deftly swerving to avoid crushing his shoeless feet at the last-minute. I panicked! Something obviously needed to be done. Someone had to rescue the ‘poor’ guy. He must be in some kind of grave problem. May be penniless! May not have eaten! I was determined to ‘help’ him!
I drove back into the driveway. Told M, the music lesson was off. And went back on my ‘rescue’ mission. My gardener and guard joined me. We maneuvered through the traffic to reach the ‘sleeping’ man.
Up close, he didn’t seem like a drunkard or a homeless, dressed as he was in almost spotless dhoti – kurta (An attire favored by traditional Rajasthani men)and bright orange turban. And yet he must definitely be in some major distress to be sleeping where he was. I could imagine no other plausible explanation for such an act.
‘Baba’ ‘baba‘, (A respectful term for the elderly) we called hoping to wake him up. But he didn’t budge. I now began to have doubts, whether he was simply sleeping or under the influence of alcohol. Though people watched us from the shops, no one came up to us. I wondered if they knew something I didn’t. Would we get into some kind of trouble?
The gardener shook him awake. “Baba, come with us to the side. Don’t sleep on the road.” The man opened his eyes. He didn’t smell of alcohol. His face was clean and almost fresh (considering he had been sleeping on the road). Looking up at our anxious faces, ‘baba‘ Joined his hands in a ‘namaste‘ , turned on his side and went back to sleeping.
We noticed a bandage on his left foot. Realizing he may be having trouble walking, the gardener brought his bike. We woke ‘baba‘ again, and asked him to sit on the bike and come with us. We said, he could rest in our garden and have a cup of tea. He refused. Thinking he may not trust us, we said we could drop him where he wishes to go. But he refused that too. Thinking he may not understand Hindi, we repeated our request in the local dialect. But ‘baba‘ simply folded his hands in an elegant ‘namaste‘ and refused again. Almost desperate, we asked him if we could at least help move him to the side of the road. But our help was politely declined once again.
Seeing, that there was nothing more we could do we made our way back home. As we reached the gate. ‘ Baba‘ stood up. His left foot was hurt and he limped as he walked bare feet on the dirty tarmac. A young man offered his shoulder as support. But ‘baba‘ declined. Just as he had declined us. Slowly he started walking away. Though the progress was slow, and obviously painful, there was a quiet dignity about the man.
As I watched him walk away. I wondered:
What kind of situation may he be in? What is his life like?
Why was he so determined to not take any help? Is it that life had taught him to distrust ‘help’ offered by strangers? Is it that his self-respect did not allow him to accept assistance?
And the biggest question. Who are we to judge whether a person needs help or not? Whether his situation needs to be changed? Whether the change we offered was indeed better for him? Are we city/ educated people too presumptuous?
For instance Who are we to decide how a village woman should live her life? How she should cook? eat? serve? How she should behave with her family? How many children should she have? Or how the poor should pray, eat, live, sleep, or even defecate? Or how a tribal must love, marry, or cohabit?
The truth is, that all of us are evolving and adapting to our environment everyday. Our city lives, filled as they are with packaged foods, and stressful schedules are in no way healthier than the lives of the poor villagers we constantly advocate to change. Our open lifestyles and nuclear family lives not significantly happier than their conservative homes.
Does that mean, they don’t deserve to be helped? Not at all! Poverty and lack of education is a curse. Anybody who wishes to make a positive change to his/her life is entitled to our help. The key word here being ‘entitled’!
When the ‘help’ is provided with complete respect for the person one seeks to help. Backed by an understanding or at least an honest attempt at understanding the person’s life choices. Without ‘judgement’ and assumptions. Then the ‘help’ becomes enabling and nurturing.
But ever so often, The help comes like an aid – from a ‘giver’ (supposedly smart, intelligent, right) to the ‘getter’ (supposedly dumb, stupid and wrong). It is not enabling as it doesn’t believe that the person at the receiving end has the ability to judge and make correct choices.
Such a help, at best makes no great impact on the life of the “getter’ and at worst becomes like a crutch that makes the ‘getter’ dependent forever.
A case in point The reservation system in India. A good thought, no doubt at the time of its origin. People from the disadvantaged communities definitely did deserve assistance in order to break the unfair barriers imposed upon them by rigid caste and class structures.
And yet, what use was this “noble” assistance without concrete steps towards changing the disabling structure itself? What use of providing jobs without providing quality education to improve academic and professional standards? What use of a system that instead of decreasing differences and hatred for these wronged communities has instead fanned sentiments against them and increased polarity?
Its time we began to question the “help” we get. Its time we ask for “help” that strengthens our abilities and personalities rather than make us dependent and incapable. Its time we asked for aid that aims to create broader, more long-term impact rather than meet small, short time needs!
Its time we acted more like the man with the orange turban – with dignity and self-respect and a belief in our own abilities, even when down and out.
I would love to know your thoughts on Aid and Charity!