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Thursday, December 23, 2010

There are such people around us, too

Tomorrow will be Christmas Eve, so I shall continue to muse on the Christmas theme…

It is not quite a coincidence that lately I have been handling stories in class on the essential spirit of the season, telling us what being human is and is not about, both for one’s own self and for others: Tolstoy’s How much land does a man require, O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi, and Ebenezer Scrooge invisibly and enviously watching the Christmas revelry at the Cratchits’ in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. And I have been musing, like a thousand times before, about giving and sharing and loving. I read in Robert Fulghum’s classic heart-warmer All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten about how V. P. Menon, who rose from obscure poverty to become the most powerful bureaucrat in Jawaharlal Nehru’s first government, had repaid his debt to someone who had helped him out at a time of great distress in his youth with a small gift of money by giving charity of the same amount many thousands of times to perfect strangers in need throughout his life.

I have also read in Reader’s Digest, November 2010 edition, how a self-made Austrian tycoon aged 48 is giving away all his wealth to charity, and insists that he is doing it because it’s brought him a kind of happiness that he never thought existed, just like Dickens’ Scrooge, because he has found he had been wasting away his precious life chasing things he had absolutely no need for (fancy villas, snazzy cars, expensive holidays, grossly-overpriced clothes with designer labels, getting sozzled on champagne, trophy wives), socializing with people who were just as shallow, aimless, conceited and wasteful as he used to be, while the lives of so many in the world out there could be made safer and healthier and happier with a little bit of his money.

And it’s not only mad millionaires who give away a great deal of their money. Hard on the heels of that article comes another one in this month’s RD, paying glowing tributes to those they have rewarded with the title Asians of the Year. The top award has gone to a 60-year old roadside vegetable vendor in Taiwan, who has been working since teenage, still maintains a backbreaking work schedule day in, day out, and yet has managed to give – hold your breath – the equivalent of fifteen million Indian rupees in charity so far, following a habit of simple living, careful saving, ignoring the follies of ‘high’ society and caring for everybody around her whose need is greater than hers.

The saints have said ‘Give until it hurts’. These people are saying it doesn’t hurt to give, it’s actually great fun, and brings a profound sense of satisfaction. And yet, when the editor sadly says ‘if regular middle-class families too made giving an important part of our lives, it will make a real difference… we have so much to learn from this elderly vegetable seller!’ I know, only too well, how much it hurts people like us to give away the tiniest bit of even things that we don’t need at all. It hurts to give up that obscene birthday bash at a fancy hotel, it hurts to forego the holiday abroad, it hurts to make do with a cheap watch or vanity bag for several years, it hurts to give a rickshaw puller five extra rupees when he has pulled you a mile through blazing heat, it hurts even to give away books we’ll never read and clothes we haven’t worn for ages, it hurts to express gratitude to those whom you owe a great deal, and it hurts to give sad and lonely people a patient and sympathetic ear…

I am reminded of the old Bengali doggerel ota ke re? / ami khoka / mathay ki re?/ aamer jhankaa / khash na kano?/ daante poka / bilosh na kano?/ ore baba! Which, crudely translated, would sound like this:

Who’s there? – just the kid
What are you carrying? –  mangoes under a lid
Why don’t you eat them? – this toothache’s horrid
Give them away then? – God forbid!

So Karl Rabeder and Chen Shu-chu make me bow my head in admiration and respect in a way that no tycoon or cricket celebrity or scholar or merely successful professional man will ever do. If that makes a lot of people gnash their teeth because they, highly admirable in their own eyes, find it unbearably hateful that they can’t extract the same respect from me, I am sorry for them.

And I shall consider myself deeply rewarded if a few readers, after going through this post, tell me ‘Now I know why you have always stuck to a lifestyle much less fancy than you could afford…’ Maybe I keep all that ‘extra’ money for better things!

P.S., Dec. 31: I should like my readers to look up this earlier post  in this context.


Shilpi said...

I've been relishing this essay for the last couple of days. Thank you.

Last week they'd come up with an article on Toby Ord and I wondered when I was reading your essay whether some of the (exceptionally thick-headed) commentators on the Ord article had heard of Chen Shu-Chu. What would they say when faced with some facts that they would much rather not know about? Some years ago I remember reading about a young boy, Ryan, from Canada who had started collecting money by doing odd jobs in order to set up a water well in Uganda. The boy had been all of 7 years old when he'd started.

I have to say that they make it very easy to give here - especially during the holiday season and otherwise. One can make food donations, one can make donations to animal shelters, and one can give a bit of money for children's organizations. I've also seen young and old volunteers helping out at animal shelters and at the libraries as well...

There is the other side too unfortunately enough. Leave alone giving to others but even students with what seems to be a hefty enough stipend go into debt. They'll be crying one moment for not having enough money but then seem to spend more and more on doing their hair and buying clothes. That's an alarming instance of cognitive dissonance if I ever saw one.

As for giving, sharing, and loving people...sometimes I have to wonder. Yesterday while waiting outside the movie theatre - there was an absolutely disgusting ad blaring over the mike, which I nearly missed. A high-pitched female voice shrieking, "Movies and fun and popcorn. Give yourself a treat. I deserve it and of course he's paying." I wonder whether "The Gift of the Magi" or any of the other stories make sense to too many people these days. But some people live the real life too - so there is some hope and wonder left.

Thanks for this essay, Suvro da. It was nice to visit it today and it was good to read about Karl Rabeder and Chen Shu-Chu. And also, thanks for listening and for being here.

Merry Christmas to Pupu, Boudi, and you.


P.S: I've got to say that I've never quite thought of the last bit in your post.

Subhasis Graham Mukherjee said...

the story of Narayanan Krishnan, a CNN Top 10 Hero of 2010 needs a mention here. His isn't a story of giving or giving back but of 'giving up' ...

Once a rising star, chef now feeds hungry

Narayanan Krishnan was a bright, young, award-winning chef with a five-star hotel group, short-listed for an elite job in Switzerland. But a quick family visit home before heading to Europe changed everything.

"I saw a very old man eating his own human waste for food," Krishnan said. "It really hurt me so much. I was literally shocked for a second. After that, I started feeding that man and decided this is what I should do the rest of my lifetime."

Krishnan was visiting a temple in the south Indian city of Madurai in 2002 when he saw the man under a bridge. Haunted by the image, Krishnan quit his job within the week and returned home for good, convinced of his new destiny.

"That spark and that inspiration is a driving force still inside me as a flame -- to serve all the mentally ill destitute and people who cannot take care of themselves," Krishnan said.

Krishnan founded his nonprofit Akshaya Trust in 2003. Now 29, he has served more than 1.2 million meals -- breakfast, lunch and dinner -- to India's homeless and destitute, mostly elderly people abandoned by their families and often abused.

Sunup said...

Dear Sir,

We feel good when we read about people like Chen Shu-Chu. Only a select few in this world can do such deeds selflessly. Similar is the story about Narayanan Krishnan from Madurai, a nominee of CNN's Top 10 heroes of 2010 (http://edition.cnn.com/SPECIALS/cnn.heroes/archive10/naryanan.krishnan.html). What sets these people apart are that they just don't demand or expect any recognition for their deeds, but does so from their heart. Their deeds come to light only when others see their deeds and bring them to light. Christ said something to that effect -- that your left hand should not know what your right hand is giving/handing out.
Sir, regarding the last paragraph in your post -- I didn't quite get you. Did you mean that you have always stuck to a simpler lifestyle so that you could save more to give out to the more needy ones? If so, it's really good of you. But that's something one should do discreetly; without expecting any recognition/praise/kind and warm words. I may be wrong, but that's what I feel.

Love and regards,


Suvro Chatterjee said...

As you see, Sunup, I have published your comment, though it hurt, as I told you privately. I hope others (especially those who know me better as a human being) will read that last paragraph differently. You, obviously, have no idea how hard it is to live a life of being taunted as a fool by thousands - including lots of parents of my pupils, who warn their kids never to listen to anything I say beyond taking down notes for examinations - simply because one has tried to live more simply than all those 'educated' and 'cleverer' folks, so that one might not set one more bad example of self-indulgent living, and always have something to spare for those whose need is greater. Saying 'just ignore them' is infinitely easier than doing it yourself when you are constantly at the receiving end. I am no Christ, and Christ himself sometimes lost his temper rather badly, if you care to check out with the Good Book.

Harman said...

Merry christmas and a happy new year to you and your family.

I was in India last week attending a conference, and I couldn't help but notice that India's 9% economic growth rate has only affected about 9% of the population of the country at best. Nothing has significantly changed for the rest of them.

I hope your article inspires many more to experience the joy of selfless giving this season.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Nearly 2000 visits since I wrote this post, and so few seem to have liked what I wrote! Most unpleasant subject for most of my readers, I guess...

Nivedita Bhattacharjee said...

I just read this post Sir, because Debarshi pointed it out to me. Thank you very much for this, I had a few doubts even as I was writing mine today and now I have answers.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

I should say thank you, Nivedita (and Debarshi, too, it goes without saying), for looking up and commenting on an old post - though, as I keep saying, hardly anything on this blog gets dated, by design.

I can say this much for myself: if I could do something like what little Ryan and Narayanan Krishnan have done, I'd consider that a far greater sign of being an 'achiever' than almost anything else that I can think of.

And - maybe only because the world will always be overfull of hardhearted people looking only to feather their own nest - the need for charity will never go away: no amount of technology and governmental activism can substitute for it.