Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Can we do something?

Recently I came across a photograph of an aged cobbler on a footpath, making hardly enough money to earn a single meal in a day, staring straight into the camera with a stoic, serene and dignified smile on his withered face. The kind of serenity and dignity that come from honest living. And contentment.

Honest living, his certainly is. It must be a continuous heroic battle against the temptation to live otherwise. The capacity to keep smiling and remain committed to the hard and honest way of life even as he realises that his monthly income is less than the cost of a pair of those leather shoes he polishes calls for unparalleled contentment and equanimity; the stoic smile on his wizened face should chasten the world mired in the rat race called living.

It tells another story too. The compulsion to work that hard at that age; the stark economic realities behind it all.

Our rulers and administrators tell us that the economy is flourishing and that everything is picture perfect. They have their statistics to flourish at us.

But statistics lie - and lie outrageously. After all, Statistics is a subject which makes one conclude that a man is happy on the average if one end of his is in a refrigerator and the other in a raging fire!!

The disparity between the metros and the villages is glaringly obvious to all except those who can do something substantial about it; so is the disparity between income levels across the various strata of society in a metro.

Can we do something for these hapless people who have as much a right to decent living as anybody else - a right which they are too ill-equipped to enforce but a right which can be supported by us with our thoughtfulness?

Can we do something for these hapless souls to ensure at least a reasonably comfortable life, a life that assures three square meals a day, good clothing, and good shelter - if not anything fancier?

We can. If we act in concert. The more of us join the drive, the better of course. But we need not wait for anyone to join our effort right now; we can tread the lonely path for a while. If we can swim against the tide to help ourselves, we can swim against the tide to help others too.

How about buying a couple of earthen pots for storing water from that old woman on the footpath every summer - even if we do not ever use them?

How about buying a kite from that lad staring into distant skies with dreams in his eyes, hope in his heart and hunger in his stomach - even if we do not dream to fly a kite ever?

How about buying those home-made papads from that small boy selling papads in the evening while going to school during the daytime?

Just so they continue to make an honest living and their needs are met adequately. Just so the only honest means of livelihood they know are not snuffed out along with their lives. Just so they do not turn into criminals to survive the pangs of hunger - debasing their souls and the collective conscience of society in the process.

How about refusing to frequent a fancy restaurant and going, instead, to a smaller, unimpressive one? Our custom can be the difference between life and death for the owner of that restaurant and the staff in it.

How about drinking some tea from that tea vendor operating from a makeshift stall? At least when we are not desperately looking for a comfortable place to sit and sip tea at the end of a hard day? Our custom can mean the medicines for his feverish daughter.

How about refusing to buy something from that flashy air-conditioned mall if it is available in a less impressive outlet - so that the proud owner of that small shop does not become a servile salesman in a Mall? How about buying our vegetables from a vegetable vendor on the streets rather than from one of these luxurious malls? How about the groceries?

How about buying an inexpensive perfume from the local perfumer than a ten-thousand rupee perfume imported from France? Just so our ancient art of perfumery does not die an ignoble death - and, along with it, the perfumers.

How about buying a pair of good old Bata shoes rather than a pair of Nike so that cobblers like this old man have their livelihood unaffected? Or even the leather footwear that was once handmade before the cobblers making them started giving up their profession and their livelihood?

May be the next time we are about to buy an expensive perfume or a pair of shoes shelling out ten thousand rupees, we can settle for something much less expensive and donate the difference to CRY or a home for the aged?

None of these choices may be adequate, even in the short run, to tackle a problem so huge. But it is our little contribution to the solution. A contribution that does not rule out more effective contribution from anyone.

None of these choices is all that difficult - certainly not any more difficult than the hardship the millions around us face every minute as they struggle to survive. We do not have to do anything but give up some of our fancy desires - desires which do not threaten our existence if they are not fulfilled.

Yes, in case you are wondering, I do make these choices consciously. I do indulge myself at times; but I do try to cater to the glaring but unspoken needs of the hapless around me in small and subtle ways. In a way that is charitable in spirit but does not look like charity and offend their proud spirit.

In the process, we help ourselves too. We turn humbler. And more honest too. We become more contented like that old man out there in that picture despite the coarse choices we make while foregoing the expensive pleasures. Contentment leads to happiness, doesn't it?


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