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Sunday, February 26, 2012

Actors don't just act!

We in India expect the government to do everything for us that we cannot do ourselves – from getting rid of garbage daily to caring for the army of the poor to building roads and keeping them safe from predators. I don’t blame common Indians entirely for it: they are simply living up to a long tradition of public powerlessness and whining, which has come down to us from the Mughals and the British mai-baap style of government through the long era of Nehruvian socialism…

But people ought to be more active about caring for one another without relying upon and blaming government too much. People are only as powerless as they think. Much of their inactivity also actually springs from apathy, indolence and plain callousness: few parents teach anything like public responsibility in this country (if I am not blind, why should I or my children bother to get involved with caring for the blind?) Which is one reason that there is so much avoidable suffering in this country, and most of us clever people repeatedly fall victim to our own cleverness at times of distress and helplessness, when we can hardly expect people (just like ourselves!) to come forward and lend a helping hand.

I was reading about how George Clooney and fellow Hollywood actors and producers have been busy raising very sizeable funds in the name of the Motion Picture and Television Fund Foundation in aid of indigent actors and assorted technicians in the trade: people who are not rich, and who are now ill or handicapped or on the verge of retirement with an uncertain future looming ahead. The Fund was set up in 1921 by none other than Charlie Chaplin (so my own newspaper informed me yesterday) – a man of genius who rose to great fame and fortune by his own efforts, but never forgot his very humble beginnings. People sticking together with less fortunate members of their communities is one of the nicest things we humans can do for one another: I always say one charitable man is worth ten philosophers and a hundred technicians.

Of course I am aware that it is not an exclusively American phenomenon. There are numerous individuals and organizations working for the common weal in India too: some locally focused, some nationwide in scope, some very well known, some obscure, looking after all kinds of underprivileged groups and interests, from rural women and children and the old, handicapped and ill to traditional craftsmen, artists and musicians, environmental concerns and vanishing wildlife, slum dwellers and disgruntled consumers, all sorts. And I am not saying for a moment that they don’t do invaluable work. My point is, I have heard so many people who work at such things lamenting that they are chronically short of both money and manpower.

Which is indeed a tragedy, seeing that there are not only literally millions of people around who can spare a few hundred, or even thousand rupees for good causes (the total would run into hundreds of crores!), but tens of millions whose real problem is that they have too little work to do – and so they are always partying or gossiping, dressing up or chatting on Facebook, shopping like drunks or lamenting that they don’t have money enough to shop as much as they’d like to, or falling victim to mental disease born of boredom, loneliness, and a very low sense of self-worth – depression and drug abuse and crime and domestic violence and behaving like hoodlums on the roads in the name of political activism. We never seem to have a dearth of such people in this country, but good, constructive work of any sort – NO NO! In fact, virtually all schools turn SUPW into a farce to be sniggered at, and in college, bodies like the NSS go abegging for volunteers. This, despite the fact that the few of my friends and ex-students who have actually worked for some social cause, usually with this or that NGO, have all averred that it was one of the most rewarding experiences in their lives.

I have long reconciled myself to the fact that as a teacher in this land and age, my power to bring about change for the better is pitifully limited. But I never lose sight of the saying that it is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness. If I can motivate fifty people in my entire lifetime into joining or otherwise helping some sort of social cause, I shall consider myself a successful man. And readers, I should very much like to know about the kind of such activities you might have been involved in, and the kind of experience you had. Even if they were not always very pleasant (as it wasn’t for my own daughter: see this post).


Sarbani Roy said...

I would like to do something too... But my problem is that I always think of a future time when I can do something. At present I do not have enough money to donate, and I don't know how to do anything being in the US (I have very big plans for when I come back to India after finishing my PhD, having worked for two years). The only social service I have done is, I used to go to a small school for mentally challenged children with my friend and spend some time with them, during my engineering days(this school was near my college). And I had donated a very small amount of money as I just a student. However, I want to do something now, and I would really like to get some suggestions from you.

Sayan Datta said...

Dear Suvro Sir,
It was probably around fifteen years ago, when I was staying in Vivekananda Road, A-Zone, Durgapur, that I had my first real brush with charity. I was probably thirteen or fourteen at that time and I remember that it was an afternoon during the peak of summer when a dilapidated old lady with a frail body falling almost to pieces from years of neglect arrived at our house asking for alms. I had seen beggars before of course, but this one made such a lasting impression that I can easily recollect her face till date. It was her eyes I think; they had such telling sincerity as I hadn’t seen in beggars before or haven’t since. My mother gave her hot rice and curry and I coaxed her into adding fish to the menu. The satisfaction in her eyes when she was done made our effort truly worthwhile.

It is as true as it is shameful that I haven’t gone beyond giving the odd rupee or two to roadside beggars, much less participating in something more organized, such as working with NGO’s. Now that I think of it, the shame and the guilt seem multiplied by the fact that I have been earning my own bread for the last four years! Sure, I gave a hundred rupees to a homeless drifter, but that was months ago; and I am not even sure whether it was an act of charity or not. A sudden impulse maybe, but probably not well-thought-out charity. I was involved in collecting money for Helpage India when I was in primary school, and although I did it sincerely, I was very naïve back then, did not have the slightest inkling of what charity means and treated it more like an extracurricular activity.

I have thought about doing something solid and on a more regular basis for some time now and the only thing that has prevented me is my own habit of procrastination. That I believe is the problem with a lot of other people as well.

Sayan Datta

aranibanerjee said...

Inspired by your post, I've written something on my blog. It is slightly unrelated but you might want to read it.


sreejata said...

I just stumbled on this blog and really liked your style and content (and you may rightly ask, so?). So, of course, just had to pitch in and say truly appreciate a run-in with likeminded, like-souled individuals. I do not wish to talk about my thoughts/actions on charity here; suffice it to say that they run on similar lines and I am one of those very few individuals on earth who actually believes she has more than enough.

Debarshi Saha said...

Respected Sir,

Warm regards.I have always believed that we suffer from a scarcity mentality..hence the 'dog-eat-dog' social phenomena and the belief that there isn't enough for everybody.Like a rudderless ship,we have been conditioned to believe that by shirking collective/individual responsibility,we can evade the consequences of our actions.But,sadly,even though there is ample proof that every single day,we are helped along in our lives by people whom most of us do not spare a thought for,we don't want to wake up to our duties.

I participated in raising funds to help senior citizens in dire need of money(HelpAge India);the lukewarm response I received during my collection journeys reminded me of the fact that most people were adept at spouting theories to save our country,theories they themselves were unwilling to practise,to even support-for in secret,they dreaded the thought of their not-so-lucky counterparts leading better lives!They could cough up money for expensive dresses they would not wear,could pay money to cut-throat businessmen,could pay a bribe to get their work done without batting an eyelid,could fund their sons/daughters to engage in frivolous behavior all throughout their lives-but they could not think/feel for their fellow men.At some places,I was shooed away with the retort-"Why should I help unknown strangers?",whilst at others the money they gave could put a beggar to shame!Some people gave so generously,asking and inquiring more about the organization in question;some opened their hearts and expressed their wish to be engaged in such activities-all of which made me feel that maybe it was due to all these living gems that the world spun round and round.So many of us wish to change the world,gain power over others-so few of us ever want to change our own selves,or gain power over our own selves.We are so content living in our bubbles,believing so naively in our importance and the bubble.

I wish God gives me more opportunities to genuinely help my fellow men,Sir..

With best wishes,

Tanmoy said...

Dear Suvroda

After moving to New Zealand, I truly realised how charitable organisations work and how serious people generally are in relation to social work. My wife volunteers for a charitable organisation and all her colleagues actually live the value of the organisation in the true sense of the term.

Further, in office we have occasional fundraisers, through which all of us donate funds through various charities. Fundraisers are held not only for charitable organisations who work for human beings but also for organisations who work for animals. Recently, I grew a moustache for a month to raise money for Men’s cancer research and awareness. Most people I have met do not whine about donating to any charity.
Surprisingly, fund raisers are fun events where men and women participate with equal enthusiasm.

To give you a couple of example, I attach the following links;


People shave their heads, run marathon, grow a mo, wear bright colour clothes for a day, dress like cowboy etc. to raise money and awareness.

The role that different support groups perform here is exemplary. For example, if someone is suffering from cancer, he is not only seen by doctors but also by ex-survivors and family members of affected people. These people are from charitable organisations and they not only speak to the patients but they are in constant touch with patient’s family (even to the extent of offering a drive to and from the hospital). Most of these people in the support group are volunteers!

The amount of effort that “affected” and “normal” people put in to rebuild Christchurch (post earthquake) is unimaginable and the way people clean the beaches here to remove leaking oil spoiling the environment has to be seen to be believed.

For the last few months, I have accessed information from a certain NGO on an issue closer to me. They have been helping me with pamphlets, advice etc. I can vouch for the fact, that these organisations work hard and use all the money they receive.

As far as my wife and I were concerned, we did not have to change towards realising social obligations after something happened to us. The environment around us changed us three years back.



Suvro Chatterjee said...

Hmm, few comments, but thoughtful ones. Thanks, all.

Sarbani, you could visit the local Salvation Army setup and explore possibilities. Or some of the many Indian welfare organizations via their websites: CRY, SEWA or Helpage India for example. And where charity is concerned, nothing is ever too little: see my posts titled Living Selfishly, part one and two.

Sayan, you are right: apathy and procrastination are often the worst enemies. But once you are aware of them, you can try and overcome them. There are things to do all around you. Try People United for Better Living in Calcutta (PUBLIC).

Arani, thanks for the post. I have already commented on it. The prevailing social atmosphere of boundless greed combined with total unconcern for the less fortunate is at the root of most of our evils. But every one of us has a choice to make. As Sreejata has observed (and I respect her deeply for it), it starts with admitting that many of us have more than enough, so some of it can be shared around.

It becomes easier when you are living in a civilized (read humane-) social environment, as Tanmoy points out. Debarshi, don't despair. Living in the kind of country we do, it is important for each one of us to decide whether we want to add to the side of evil (meaning greed and unconcern) or to the side of the good. And in this context, I have found out that one doesn't do charity only with money. Being there for people in distress, people who simply want a shoulder to cry upon, or who need advice (not 'gnyaan dewa'!) is one of the highest forms of giving. Too many of us are too eager to tell the world about ourselves, and have too little time and concern and goodwill to give to others...

Dipanwita Shome said...

This post will always be very dear to me because it reminds me of people very very close to me. I am talking of my parents.
My parents are very closely associated with a philanthropic organization called Matrishangho Jonokolyan Asrom. It was started by the late Sri Sudin Kumar Mitra and has its head office on Chokroberiya Street, Kolkata. S. K. Mitra is also our Gurudeb.
My father is an engineer and he therefore used his connections to build the building where the Asrom is now located, with as little investment on part of the people of the Asrom as possible, so that the extra money could be given to the poor and the ailing. Since then, a lot of developments have taken place-Gurudeb is no more , but the Asrom continues to work under what it believes to be his aegis.
Matrishongho now has a free medicine center and every Sunday and Wednesday it has the best doctors from North Bengal treat hundreds of the poor. It has now opened a pathological laboratory with tie ups with Dr. Lal Path Labs where the poor and the rich can have their tests done for 50-200 rupees. My father has been at the helm of affairs and has yet refused to become Secretary of the organization. He along with two of his friends give two scholarships to deserving students every year and this year they have been able to send a boy to Kala Niketan in Shantiniketan.

Dipanwita Shome said...

Apart from what my father does, Matrishongho gives britti to about 300 students per year in addition to giving kumari britti to 200 little girls every year.
Baba is also at the helm of another initiative that helps the families of prisoners in North Bengal with clothes for all members of the family and school fees for their children. Another programme takes care of the health of street children in collaboration with Kolkata Police.
Apart from this, Matrishongho organizes drawing competitions and such other activities to promote a life for children in a dead city like Siliguri.
In all this, I can’t forget my mother’s contribution. My father left his business long back in order to dedicate his time to Matrishongho. Not that it did not or does not cause the family some financial discomfort, especially when my sister and I were dependents, but my mother was a staunch supporter there. She regularly goes to Matrishongho for shondhya prarthona and the work I have talked about above. She is in many ways a strong sustainance to my father’s soul in all this.

Dipanwita Shome said...

As for my sister and me, we have Matrishongho as part of our lives. It is like a second home, it is like a vantage point in our lives and one of the chief reasons why we go back to Siliguri. She and I were regular volunteers with the Wednesday and Sunday medical help center and our evenings are often spent there. Kali Pujo is one of the biggest occasions in our lives. It is spent in Matrishongho. No Bramhin does the pujo. Gurudeb is invoked through bhokti music sung by shishyas who are classical singers and he is believed to do the pujo. We all (and I mean hundreds of people-some, disciples and most, not) eat a hearty meal in the huge dining hall before the pujo and then stay there for the night. The boli is of fruits and vegetables. And, in all this, there is actually no religious barring. Every festival is heartily celebrated and the philanthropic work continues alongside.
Even at this point, Budhho, a volunteer and a scholarship holder from the organization whose family income per month is two thousand rupees is being aided in his father’s operation at North Bengal Medical College by Matrishongho. Baba and all the other members are present there with him because Budhho is younger even than I am, and much more helpless.

Dipanwita Shome said...

And, I was talking about the Matrishongho Jonokolyan Asrom in Siliguri.

Also, why I wrote to you is because Baba and Maa have been able to add to the good in this world by giving up on greed. I too am trying to follow their example. Now that I am working, I have planned to send home some money for a monthly scholarship for someone needy. I hope I will be able to do more in future.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Thanks for telling us, Dipanwita.

There is indeed something non-trivial, something blessed in your lives. Don't lose touch with it.

More power to your dad's elbow. Also, may the Jonokalyan Asram go from strength to strength and light up many more lives - those who give as well as those who receive.

Dipanwita Shome said...

Thank you very much for your wishes, Sir.

Sunup said...

Dear Sir,

People like Dipanwita's parents are a rarity indeed! Hats off to people like them. It's very easy for anyone to sit and preach, but actual practice needs real guts and sacrifices to the highest possible levels.


Suvro Chatterjee said...

Thanks, Sunup, but 'to sit and preach' - as I myself have done lifelong - is a little harder than you think! I haven't met anyone among my familiar contemporaries who has the time and inclination to do as much. Have you?

Sreejith Nair said...

Sir, while studying in the Sri Sathya Sai system, one spirit that I couldnot miss was aggressive charity. What do I mean by it? Let me illustrate through an instance that happened in class.
Our Accounts paper results were being announced in class and the familiar scenes of expectation-joy-dissapointment flashing across faces reminded me of how predictable and hence boring our education system had become.
Just after Sir finished giving out the answer sheets, he asked those who had failed to stand up. I told myself, "Here we go...now he will give them an hour of useless advice"
However, he did a headcount and asked them to sit. Then he asked the A graders to stand up. For the next hour and a half, he lamblasted them for not proactively helping out those who were weak in the subject.
Over the next few weeks Isaw study groups blossom and I relished the positivity around like a frog after the first showers.

That incident taught me that charity is not a privilege, it is a duty. It needs no money, it just needs intent. It is just a way of life not an act or deed. And at the end of everything it makes a world a much much better and blissful place to be in.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Your comment opens up another dimension, Sreejith: thanks for writing in.

As I said in an earlier comment, charity does not consist in merely giving money to the needy, important as that is. And in this context, people who 'just sit and preach' do the hardest possible kind of charity (think of some men I worship, the likes of Socrates and Sri Ramkrishna), usually getting nothing for it in return but abuse and ridicule, and even open violent hostility (someone who 'just preached' got nailed to the cross.. I wonder whether Sunup thinks that's easy!)

Navin said...

Dear Sir,

I have been fortunate enough in my life to reach a level of security early enough in my life where it was clear to me that I will never loose favor with the gods, or at least I think so :).

I have more than enough to share with the needy. I give a fixed monthly amount as a donation to Greenpeace and yearly donation of fruit trees to Project Greenhands. I try to match the donation of fruit trees with my consumption of fruits in a year, which unfortunately is not as much as it should be. Apart from that I donate most of my clothes and furniture to organizations here, like Salvation army and Goodwill stores. Also I buy most of my things from them. I also make commitments of donating a months salary to various causes which I find useful, and I have so far been able to honor my commitments. I was a very active part of AID india which I left after sometime due to political differences, but am an active volunteer for such events held by various organizations from time to time. While in Aid India we raised money for projects for upto 10000 dollars in Orrisa and Gujrat, namely ARTRC and Organic Dhaba. Right now I am involved with Isha Foundation's outreach activities. Also I host sanyasis of various organizations/religions whenever I have an opportunity and serve them.

Right now I am planning to pay for a room in a dharamshala which is part of a religious commitment my family has made for an organization.

My experience has been very very gratifying. Without doubt, this has given me more than what I could have ever expected. I have made friends in places I would not have thought, besides I have found wonderful friends in the process. I feel fortunate to be living in times where it is so easy to serve people and there is a lot of suffering to be alleviated. it is just so easy to be recognized for your charitable efforts in these times. In my experience, a days worth of volunteering has translated to nutritious food for about 10 families, and smiles and memories lasting a lifetime. To get to listen intimately to a person who has left a cushy job to survive on nuts and hot soups often only once a day gives me a peek into transcendence of the most unique kind. Many such interactions and aggressive sentiments to help people in my past has helped refine my spiritual quest. That in turn has made me far less anxious about my life and definitely a lot more saner that what I used to be.

I have always been very concerned about doing the ethically right things, and observing the ethical choices made by people in need has assuaged a deeply disturbing sense of guilt I have carried in me
for some of my past actions. Researchers at Harvard Medical school say that a person who does charity, can never go mad and probably has a much better chance at avoiding typical symptoms of senility in old age as well. For me that has been a living experience.

Helping people in need is almost an addiction for me and I think I cannot survive without it now for the rest of my life. Besides that, this is a wonderful opportunity for me to hone my leadership skills and there is a sense of completion and closure, which was quite rare to achieve in my research life. Most charitable organizations have very driven individuals working for them, and it is really gratifying to work with them.


Suvro Chatterjee said...

Thanks for telling us, Navin. You evidently live a much more socially valuable life than most. I am sure, though, that in the course of your work you have had to deal with a lot of criticism, ridicule, irrelevant but irritating comment, and plain incomprehension... you have made the most valuable discovery in the world: the fact that those who involve themselves helpfully to brighten up others' lives manage to brighten up their own at the same time. Shakespeare says that mercy 'blesseth him that gives and him that takes', Islam makes charity one of the basic and unavoidable practices of virtue, and Hinduism tells us do good to others for the good of your own soul... and yet so many of us who are materially well-off and spiritually empty refuse to be persuaded; despite all evidence to the contrary, they are still chained to the notion that happiness lies in buying more, preening more, and harassing and abusing others more. Notice that the type of people who write in only to say how convinced they are that I am a bad man NEVER respond to posts like this - that's one thing they all have in common!

Navin said...

Dear Sir,

yes I have faced some flak for some of my views, and it pains me more when people who I usually turn to for moral advice and inspiration turn hypocritical when it is time to act. I wish there were more people like you, who act what they preach, and preach what they think without the weight of public opinion behind them.

Besides, my simple observation about the poor in India has been, that they have far more happy moments than the several souls running after more money and more security . May be it is necessary for a person to face a little adversity to experience happiness.

More importantly, for people who do walk the path less travelled, blogs like this are a constant source of encouragement. I sincerely hope you continue the good work.


sayantika said...

Dear Sir,
I am sorry to reply so late for such a motivating post. Kudos to all those who have played an active role in charity. As for me, I remember my mother had bought me a children's version of the biography of Swami Vivekananda, where it was mentioned that as a child, he used to give away most of the clothes to all those asking for alms. That was the first inspiration, I must say. Although my acts have remained limited to collecting money for Helpage and floods during school, I have seen my mother indulging in many acts of charity. She often gave my old school bags, books and clothes to poor girls in her school and I have seen various people from representatives of organisations to a very old, half-blind egg seller knocking at our door and asking for my mother whenever they need money. I have seen my father treating poor patients for free, and once in a while, my selfish self does overcome me, and I complain that they are giving away too much. But they keep on reminding me that I am very fortunate and there are many who aren't even a fraction as lucky as I am. My mother took me to the local branch of Missionaries of Charity once to prove this.
However, there are some frauds in the unorganised sectors, and an aunt of mine had caught a lady going door-to-door asking for money. And the moment my aunt had launched a tirade, she had sprinted away.
But as you have said, what I have noticed is that during the occasional fundraisers in office, to help a Group-D staff for a major surgery or when one of their daughters was going to be married, the ones who get paid the most give the very least. And my father often says that it is the ones who are well-to-do who ask and plead for waiving the fee, but the ones who are actually not so well-off will always pay the fee without any complaints. Does that say the more one has, the more reluctant he is to part with the wealth?
I feel we could have done a lot more of such constructive activities in our SUPW classes instead of just sewing and craft if both the teachers and students were interested (Our physics teacher even labelled these classes as 'Some Useful Period Wasting'). Although I had enrolled for the NSS in college, nothing really took place except for planting saplings on the Environment Day, and that too, just once.
I wish I would be able to contribute more to charity in future.

Thanks and with regards,