One day my mother and I went to a popular shopping area in the city.
The narrow sidewalks were parasitized by burgeoning mushrooms of shops and congregations of hawkers. The central road was choked with squat vehicles parked like icebergs impeding the sluggish flow of traffic. Laden with shopping bags, navigating our way through the meandering seas of irritable shoppers, falsely jovial peddlers and confused cattle was a tiresome affair. By the time we had jostled the crowds and were about ten feet away from the car, I was sweating uncomfortably, and I was more than a little annoyed.
To reach the car, we had to pass a final stretch of the sidewalk, right in front of a fast food restaurant. Sitting at the edge of the path was a beggar, imploring the impassive crowds for money audibly, piteously, as unseeing people shoved past each other without sparing him a second look. His legs were useless stumps, amputated at the knees. It was difficult to guess his age from his emaciated face; he might have been twenty, thirty or even fifty. His dark skin was grey with dust.
I felt a painful stab of pity, mingled with disgust and powerlessness, as I saw him sprawled on the betel juice-splattered pavement, the short stubs of his vestigial legs thinner than my wrists. Automatically, I fished for coins in my purse, but it was empty.
I would have passed on, forgetting my momentary regret and sympathy for him, had my mother not stopped me. I could see my tentative feelings mirrored in her face.
“Do you have any spare change?” she asked.
“No…But anyway I’ve heard that giving them money is useless. They don’t use it to buy food. It doesn’t help them,” I said, feeling ashamed at our impotence, at our entire country’s inability to help the millions of mendicants, who built up such a large portion of our population, living as less than animals, just subsisting.
My mother looked at the restaurant. “Maybe we could buy him something to eat.”
I brightened. “Yeah, let’s buy him an ice-cream.”
So we went to the store, and I ordered an ice-cream in a cone, for twenty rupees. Well-dressed giggling children pressed their small moist hands against the misted glass of the display case, earmarking the pastries arrayed in blankets of frosting and hoods of chocolate. I was struck by what a grotesque disparity there was between them and the beggar incumbent on the ground just a few feet away. The world of difference between them contained within just a few feet should have been a singularity worthy of comprehension by a retinue of theorists and scientists, but it was all too common.
“Which flavour?” I asked my mother inanely, as if the flavour of the ice-cream would matter to someone who could probably count the number of meals he had eaten in a month with his fingers.
“Do they have chocolate?” she asked.
“No, just vanilla and strawberry.”
I bought the strawberry ice-cream, pink-faced and jubilant in its cheap, cardboard-like cone.
“Give it to him carefully,” my mother told me, “And don’t touch him. You might catch something.”
I nodded. Even in our piety, we were wary of him. We would not even touch him.
I walked up to him, slowly, purposefully. Without saying a word, I extended my hand, holding out the ice-cream to him. He looked up, and our eyes met for a moment. He reached out and took the ice-cream silently. He didn’t say any of the usual loud thank yous, or the insincere blessings of prosperity and good fortune. Instead, he retreated from the centre of the sidewalk, slid to the side, and began eating the ice-cream quickly, without looking at anyone. It suddenly occurred to me that he was trying to retain a modicum of privacy while he enjoyed his rare comfort, much like I might have done in the same situation. Our mute exchange had been like an encounter between two different species, as if without common language or understanding.
And then I had an epiphany that I should have had years ago. But for an accident of birth and chance, I might have been the one sitting on the sidewalk begging for money, crippled for life. And I was revolted by own shield of studied callousness that I had built up over the years.
The first time I saw beggars, en masse, in third standard, I had been moved to tears by their plight. It had tortured me later in my dreams. But somewhere, along the years, ensconced in my cocoon of middle class comfort and complacency, I had stopped becoming affected by their condition. My inability to help them had prompted me to rationalize with myself, and to ignore them. After all, how much money, how many tens of rupees could I give to them? Would it even make a difference, or make a dent in the inconceivable torture that was their daily existence? And my feelings of pity for them were even more useless and condescending, or so I told myself.
Later, at times, I had even found myself shaken out of my apathy by irritation at the fact that they could make me feel ashamed of myself and of my better living conditions. I had even hated them at times.
But now the newly-uncovered empathy I felt was burning through me in a tide of unadulterated shame. At some point in the past, I had ceased to think of them as human beings. How different was I from the Germans who had watched the Nazis commit genocide? How different was I from the people who had enslaved other races, treating them like chattel, pretending that they were beneath them, that they did not share the same human feelings?
My mother was waiting for me near the display counter.
“Did he take it? Is he eating it?” she asked.
“Yeah, he is,” I said, and smiled.
As the car sped away from the crowded street, I was suffused with ineffable joy. I did not feel the cheated sort of compromising compliance that I had experienced before this every time I dropped a few coins into a beggar’s bowl. This was different. I had actually helped someone. I had managed to impart a little happiness to another human being who could never hope to experience the comforts and opportunities that I took for granted everyday. It had taken one ice-cream and a shared glance with a beggar for me to regain my humanity.
I am only a student, and I do not even earn yet. My arms are not strong enough to lift up all the unfortunate destitutes whose miseries are of a magnitude that I cannot even imagine. I am merely a pebble in the ocean, and I cannot shift the seas of time or shape the sands of Fate.
But I can try to alleviate their suffering, at least momentarily. Even someone as weak and feckless as I am can do that. And for now, that is enough.
[Photo Credits: Wiki Commons]