A Glass Half Full
Every Independence day like today, my inbox gets flooded with dozens of congratulatory messages. These messages are more often than not, ‘forwards’ emerging from the efforts of some digital artist and propagated across social media by the press of a single button at the bottom of a WhatsApp broadcast list. So, practically it has become so easy and convenient to cherish and celebrate our hard-fought independence.
Well intended but somehow lacking in soul, these ‘forwards‘ do not really change my happiness state significantly. Having seen some of the messages with indifference, I sit down peacefully to attend to my daily chores including looking at all the seductive videos forwarded by friends sailing in similar boats.
My WhatsApp sojourn is interrupted by the Home minister and I am asked to take out the car to make a quick trip to the nearby shopping centre for some overdue supplies. My return route on the one-way path always takes me through a certain traffic light. The mini garden-island next to the lights has been converted into a quasi-permanent residence by a family of slum dwellers.
The entire family is engaged in multifarious economic activities. The patriarch is usually selling cheap Chinese toys while the elder teenage son is into selling ‘car and mobile’ accessories. The teenage girls make a half-hearted effort to wipe clean your windscreen glass before extending their hands for alms camouflaged in the garb of instant remuneration.
The ever-pregnant matriarch with a sleeping nose-running child in her lap makes no effort to hide her intent and makes an appeal to shell out some money by evoking feelings of kindness in your stone-hearted bosom. In tow is also usually a small 7-8 years old girl, desperately grasping the edge of her mother’s dress. She is also learning the tricks of the trade as I watch her changing expressions, the moment a car stops in her vicinity.
I stopped debating with my better half about the demerits of handing out alms to roadside beggars about a decade back. It makes her happy and I like a happy wife. Her logic is very simple and irrefutable for me, “Don’t I also ask God for so many things every day? Why even the Supreme Court has recently decided that begging is a social issue and not a crime.” End of story on that count.
I hear the Prime Minister on FM radio espousing the great strides the country has taken in the last few years. Freedom from poverty, racism, bigotry, exploitation, poor health and all things aspirational. Lost in my thoughts, I have stopped listening. I guess the cynical ‘me’ is really not believing anything that I hear every year from the precincts of the Red Fort. As I drive forth, I am dreading the traffic light where I might have to stop if it is red. I don’t want to dish out money to beggars but I also don’t want to hurt by refusal.
Also, my mind is reflecting whether any iota of what the PM said applies to our perma-outdoor family on the traffic island? How many more years or decades before the traffic lights just stop traffic and nothing else? What will it take to change the lot of our impoverished brethren for the better? When will these children be playing with toys and balloons rather than selling them?
Probably born on the roadside, will they ever attend school or be a recipient of two square meals a day? Apart from dishing out the occasional 10 rupee note to assuage my conscience, have I and can I do anything to alleviate their suffering?
My worst fears come true and I narrowly miss the green light. Today I see the little girl armed with a heap of national flags walking solo towards my car. Apparently, the mother is on the other side of the road. She asks me to lower my windscreen with her laden hand and proudly offers me a flag for sale. Used to dishing out the standard 10 rupee note, I take out one from the dashboard. I offer it to her and simultaneously refuse to accept the flag. Ah! probably she will make another 10 bucks from it.
And guess what happened? I was taken aback in disbelief when she deposited the note back in my hand. “Sahib kharidiye, 10 rupay ka hi hai. Bheekh nahi chahiye.” In other words, “Sir, please buy it, it is for 10 Rupees only. I don’t want your alms.”
With the traffic signal going green and the familiar honking starting from behind, I quickly traded the 10 rupee note with the flag from her outstretched hand.
In one masterstroke moment, the girl had transformed from a beggar to a sales girl.
Suddenly overwhelmed by looking at the flag on the dashboard, the cynic became an optimist.
Gladdened to the core,
First published at seekmediation.com on 15/08/21
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