Tuesday, May 24, 2005

The Pain of Others

One afternoon, before Sunita and the children have joined me in Bombay, I am walking on the road leading to the Strand bookstore when I see a little family: a mother with wild and ragged hair, walking with a baby boy, maybe a year old, fast asleep on her shoulder and leading by the hand another boy, maybe four or five, who is rubbing his eyes with the fist of his free hand. He is walking the way children walk when they have been walking a long time, his legs jerking outward, his head nodding in a circle, to beat the monotony, the tiredness. They are all barefoot. The mother says something gentle to the older boy, still clutching her hand. I walk past them, but then I have to stop. I stand and watch. They come up to a stall on the pavement, and, as I expect her to, the mother holds out her hand, The stall owner doesn't acknowledge them. Automatically I find myself opening my wallet. I look for a ten, then take out a fifty instead and walk up very fast up to them, my mind raging, thrust the fifty in her hand - "Yes, take this" - and walk on very fast without looking back, until I get to the air-conditioned bookstore, and then I stand in a corner and shut my eyes.

The identification with my own family is so strong - a mother with two young boys - that I start constructing a past and a future for them. Probably they would have walked like that all day long, barefoot in the heat. A hundred times a day the boys would have seen their mother hold out her hand to beg. A hundred people would be watched by those clear young eyes as these strangers curse their mother, tell her to move on or throw some change at her. And still she would carry them on her shoulder when they were tired. Sometimes she might put them down in the dirt, and then they would eat a little rice or sleep where they were from tiredness.

All day long I feel ashamed of spending money. Everything I spend that day becomes multiples of that fifty-rupee note. Within twenty minutes of my giving money to the mother I have spent six times as much on books. The pizza I order in the evening is two of those fifties. The rent I will be paying per month on my flat will be 2000 times that fifty. And so on. What had my giving them fifty rupees changed? For me, it meant nothing: pocket change, less than a New York subway token. I haven't yet learnt to take the brightly colored money seriously. But it would probably be a whole day's earnings for the mother (I can't think of her as "the beggar"). Perhaps she will take her boys and her sudden good fortune and buy them a toy from the arcades under the Fort's arches. Perhaps she will buy the medicine she hasn't been able to afford for the younger child's cough. Perhaps she will take the money and give it to her man, who will buy six more bottles of country liquor. And that is the obscenity here: our lives have two entirely separate systems of currency.

- Suketu Mehta, Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found

4 Comments:

Anonymous Bushra said...

Salaam,
That was a good way of putting into words the thoughts the fly across our minds when we encounter the poorer segments of society. When I wait outside University for my bus, there are literally scores of little kids begging for money, clutching your hand, bag, etc, and reciting well-learnt pleas and duas "May you get a BMW, may you get a groom with a moon-like face" etc etc, and while brushing them away we think: Do these little kids understand whats going on? What future do they have? ..

3:46 AM  
Anonymous Bushra said...

Hey my comment got cut off in the middle! what happened to the rest.. maybe it was too long :(

11:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Asssalamo alaikum!
Howz ur mother? Is she through with the surgery yet? May Allah grant her health and keep all of us in His 'amaan'.

10:24 AM  
Blogger karrvakarela said...

Assalamualaikum,

Bushra: living in Pakistan you can't help but confront the duplicity with which you live your own life. There is such a terrible opportunity cost to every transaction we make.

The other night I was coming back on the bus from Dubai where Nadeem and I had spent Friday afternoon scouring a second-hand bookstore. I was gloating over the spoils on the bus when I noticed the man sitting next to me. He looked like a construction worker, one of the many faceless men who are responsible for this country's phenomenal success; he appeared to be making a list of his expenditures or the money he owed to people. I took a look at the list and immediately felt so ashamed of myself. Who was I to spend so much money in a bookstore when this man had to struggle so hard to survive? What were my problems compared to his?

Alhumdulillah.


Anonymous: Alhumdulillah, my mother is well. The asthma seems to be responding to treatment and, insha-Allah, the surgery is scheduled for next month. Jazak Allah for asking about her. May Allah reward you for your kindness.

10:34 AM  

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