Sunday, October 26, 2014

Charity is more than just a word

There comes a time when we must assess ourselves. This is a time for quiet reflection and not nostalgia. This is a time when we must measure our faults against our greater instincts. When we must try to find out where we’ve gone wrong and try to remedy them. We are human, or dare I say we have been identified with the “human” label. Whether a person acquires an identity through tags is of course another debate altogether, but the point is this: unless we decide to get rid of our baser instincts and try to embrace the true, unfettered meaning of that word “human”, we cannot hope to go forward.

Sometimes, though, there are one or two incidents which, if we look at their bigger picture, may well drive every human being to shame. No, I’m not talking about wars here. I’m talking about an old woman. She lives in Piliyandala. “Lives” of course presupposes many things to do with life and amenities needed to maintain it, but for the sake of argument let’s be content with that. Her name is Nandani. Don’t ask me what school she went to, what kind of childhood she had, or anything else related to her personal life. She’s a human being, like you and me. If we prick her, she will bleed, as will most of us.

I’m here to talk about something else. Nandani, like most of us I suppose, lives in a house. Correction: a shelter, as in a shelter for dogs. All 20 of them. There are also some cats. They outnumber the dogs. Now cats and dogs have to live as well. They need to eat, to drink; they need space to stretch themselves. That’s what they do. Problem is, Nandani has to fend for them, all by herself. She can’t. At the rate she’s going, I doubt whether she can sustain what she’s doing any longer.

Nandani wasn’t always like this. Like most of us, she would have come from a modest background. As I talk with her about this, she points at some ramshackle pieces of furniture scattered in a cowshed-like garage. Her place, perhaps I should add here, smells. Badly. It’s a miracle she’s still carrying on. As she relates to me the rest of her sad, sorry story, there’s a question that props into my mind. I’ll come to that later.

I was right: she had come from a modest background. The problems for her as such began with four dogs. Problems tend to increase. People, having heard about this lady’s kindness towards animals, began dumping pups and kittens. They had thought she would give them all unconditional love and attention. That’s the way with people, after all. Drop your worries on another person’s yard. One dog in particular, she remembers, had given birth to 10 more pups.

But this alone wasn’t the (chief) problem. There were other issues. She had a husband. He had died nearly two years ago. Things had been better when he was around; his operation, which hadn’t been successful and had cost nearly two million rupees, worsened the situation. Financial woes hadn’t ended there. She had been forced to pawn and sell. What little had been saved in her bank was depleted, soon.

This isn’t all. Nandani had also been victimised by a scam. A young, seemingly decent chap from her husband’s office had wanted to borrow more than two million rupees from her husband. Without any misgivings, he had given him the entire amount. This chap had gone to Naples. He didn’t return the money. When Nandani went on badgering him for it, he relented to pay 7,000 rupees every month. Even that, she tells me, isn’t forthcoming. Naturally, she did what countless other women in her situation would have done. She gave up.

Debts don’t magically disappear. They continue no matter what the debt-holder’s situation is. Natural enough. So Nandani’s debts had mounted. She had resorted to pawn her jewellery a long time back. With the interest that accumulated, she reckons she would have to pay more than five lakhs on them alone. They had a car. Had been taken over, had been sold. She had borrowed more than 4,000 rupees from neighbours; they had given her without comment, but she has since refused to ask them for more, knowing they probably have suspected that she isn’t in a position to meet her debts.

I ask her whether she’s getting help from any other person. She clearly needs it. She can’t subsist on the pittance she’s living on. Her daughter sends her money dutifully, but that’s not enough. Indeed, she hasn’t had a proper breakfast for days. I can sense the fatigue and worry in her eyes. She doesn’t have proper chairs, beds, or any other furniture-item (all of them having been eaten and bitten away by the dogs).

Others hadn’t been so generous. There was a shop nearby that had agreed to give her some rice. Sorry, “sell” her some rice. I looked at a sample. “Rice crumbs” would have been a better word for the mass of flea-and-dirt-infested mess I saw. Not surprising, because that mess was actually the rice left over every day in the shop, swept away into a pile and unusable for any decent eating purposes.

And they had been giving her this for 30 rupees a kilo. When she had asked the shop-vendors whether they could reduce the price a little, they had curtly told her off by saying that those crumbs could actually sell in the market for 40 rupees!

Nandani doesn’t want charity. This much I can say. She needs help. Sustainable help. Temporary assistance won’t do. Doling out money won’t do. I have come to believe that charity is all talk and no walk; that word, after all, is among the most misused in our dictionaries today. Charity presupposes discretion, a choice made by the charity-giver. Nandani has had plenty of experience with people who’ve giving help and then quickly gone away. She needs animal-lovers. She herself tells me just how much she has grown to love her pups and kittens.

She doesn’t need charity, to put things pithily.

I mentioned about a question that propped into my head when I heard Nandani’s story earlier. It’s a question Michael Moore asks us in his documentary-film Sicko. It’s a question he asks when he explains to us how certain private hospitals in the USA treat their patients when they can’t pay their bills anymore: by dumping them in street-corners. It’s a question I’ve come to ask myself whenever I see charitable organisations spit out rhetoric-bile about doing good while conveniently ignoring the little, small-time stories of people who really, really need (and deserve) help. A small question.

“Who are we?”

Nandani needs help. Would Lions Club, Rotaract Club, any Interact Club, or any charity faith based or otherwise lend a helping hand? Or would those words they (and we) keep on harping about doing good and beginning charity at home amount to what they have sadly become: just words?

You can contact Nandani on 0112618969. Kindly souls, lend a hand. She’s in need of it. Badly.