What about caring for those who are outside one’s own family?
I was sitting on the train from Howrah to Bolpur, dozing. Until my eyes caught the sight of a boy of maybe ten who crawled along the aisle as he was sweeping scraps of paper and other garbage. Then the ticket examiner came rushing and began to shoo away the little boy in aggressive language. This happened right next to me. I instinctively raised a hand and demanded, “Don’t hit him! Can’t you speak nicely to him?” The man looked at me and opted not to argue with me, a foreign guest, while the little boy swished past him and escaped from the AC compartment.
A gentleman, evidently from the educated, affluent middle class, who sat on the other side of the aisle, peered at me for a while and then addressed me: “Where do you come from?” Used to this irritating question, I first led him astray, saying, “From Calcutta.” “No, I mean, originally?” “I was born in Germany, but I live in Santiniketan,” was my reply.
“Ahh”, he said, “that explains it. You don’t know these children. They are thieves!”
Now I got upset. “How can you make him a thief? What has he done to you? Have you seen him taking away something?”
That gentleman, too, opted not to argue with me. He threw me an exasperated glance and fell silent.
The exchange left me seething with indignation. How can, I wondered, an educated and mature person stigmatize a whole group of humans who, for no fault of theirs, are poor and deprived and have no choice but to fall back on begging for their meals? That little boy offered some service, instead of begging. Rather than branding him a criminal, should the sight of him not arouse sympathy in anybody who is better off? Should it not be an occasion for reflection about what we, as individuals, do for poor children? The stock reply is that ‘the government’ must look after them. Or some charitable organization. But the question that forces itself on me is: do not all of us — again, as individuals — have a social duty towards other men or women, especially children, who are malnourished, unschooled, sick? Indeed, in this country, we are still admirably devoted to our families and to the welfare of their members. We look after our aged parents, we nurse our sick relatives. Especially in the villages adjacent to Santiniketan, that ethos of families staying together and supporting each other is still quite intact. Although, I hear, that senior citizen homes are beginning to mushroom all around Santiniketan for those who can afford a room in them. Well and good. But what about society outside one’s own family?
Cut to a young, educated man in Calcutta who works with adolescent children at Sealdah station. His name is Wasim. He grew up in a village some distance from Santiniketan, obtained an M.A. in Social Work, and then took the offer by a small NGO to start an informal school for the station children. He has been doing this for several years now. The NGO has rented a small shelter nearby where the boys can sleep. Wasim provides them with food, basic education and, above all, affection. Meanwhile, Wasim could place some of them in companies; some remain and others have returned to the irregular life on the station platforms. They prefer the freedom such a life gives them.
Some time ago, Wasim took me on a round to the platforms and the adjoining slums where he distributed basic medicines. He knew every youngster and every family by name. He could explain to me their mode of income and their special problems. It was a delight to see this young man talk to them so caringly. I then realized how demanding Wasim’s task is. Along with affection, he especially needs perseverance and the ability to penetrate a mindset, which is so different from his. The other day, Wasim arrived in Santiniketan with three of his station boys. Quiet, very shy and a bit dazed they were, and visibly in need of attention. There he is, that meek man in his late twenties, living on a moderate salary, which will neither allow him to marry nor give him the means to achieve a career, but he’s doing the ‘real’ work.
Compare these two men. The one denouncing that little boy in the train as a thief, the other putting up a lonely struggle to care for boys like him. To which side do we belong?
There is another aspect to the train episode. After my neighbour got to know my native country, he said, “Ahh, that explains it.” He considered my attitude weak-kneed and counterproductive. He, as many people do, felt that a European’s attitude to poverty is sheer romantic nonsense. Helping others is a ‘weakness’. These little bandits cannot be helped. To lead a normal life one needs to keep them down, that’s all. That was the attitude that transpired while he spoke.