I had a turbulent weekend. Started off quite well, actually, when I laughed to myself at the headline in the local newspaper which proclaimed that Pune's software export had finally crossed the elusive one billion US Dollar mark (they thought they had crossed that mark last year but that figure was wrong, though they were very close, apparently). I mainly laughed at the human obsession with the decimal system. One Billion US Dollars. One hundred runs. Twenty years old. Thirty years old. Decade. Century. Millenium. Aren't all these artificial boundaries? Why should a hundred runs be a whole lot more important than ninety nine? What was so special about the year 2000? For all we know, we may be living in year 1992 right now (after all, I don't think we have any documentation of early calendars, and even if we did, how do we know we are not off by a few weeks since time measurement got accurate and standardized fairly recently). I could go on, but that should be for some other time.
Still, I was impressed. Pune's software industry has faced many challenges, and even though the figure is based on the decimal system, a billion US Dollars is a lot of money. The thought was soon forgotten and I went on with my life. I needed to withdraw some money, so I rode my motorbike to the bank. It was extremely hot, and I was a little irritable. Outside the ATM I encountered a bearded, slightly bent man, obviously very poor who offered to wipe my motorbike clean for a Rupee. A Rupee, my friends, is nothing these days. My dog would be unhappy with a Rupee as allowance. Still, I refused the offer, mainly because I have a humongous ego and I don't like being forced into anything. I would even go so far as saying that I was slightly rude to the guy, who quickly backed off after persuading the matter for a while. I withdrew the money, felt guilty about being so churlish, and made eye contact with the guy as I came out of the ATM centre. The guy asked me for 50 Paise! I dipped into my pocket, came up with a 50 Paise coin, and another of five Rupees. I gave him the 50 Paise coin, and could see the obvious disappointment in his eyes when I put the other coin back in my pocket. But the man had some selft respect, and he thanked me and left. While I drove back I felt a little smaller. I spend thirty Rupees for a coffee every morning, but I couldn't bring myself to give the guy more money. Well done, Anurag, very well done! I shared the incident with my wife when I reached home, and she told me I should have given him more. She asked me whether we could go back and give him some money. I love the girl. So we drove back to the bank, this time in the car. The guy was still there, he approached the car but was obviously hesitant when he saw me. I asked him whether he could clean the car and he agreed immediately. I went and bought a bubble gum, came back and found the guy stuggling with dirt stains on the windshield. I told him to leave it, and my wife gave him ten Rupees. He was obviously very happy, and promised me he'd clean the car later. "Next time, sir", he said with a huge grin, visible from behind his dusty beard.
I went home and had an afternoon nap. Upon waking up, I went for a walk with my wife in the fields behind the apartment complex where we live. There I saw Mithun, after a long time. So long that I had forgotten about him. Mithun is a crippled guy who lives in Koregaon Park. He can't walk, so he drags himself everywhere with his hands, not much unlike a big primate. He is roughly my age, and has a beard which he gets shaved once a year. I know his name because I asked him once, when I stopped to give him some food on a cold, wet monsoon night while he quietly sat under one of the numerous banyan trees on South Main road.
I asked Mithun how he was doing, he smiled, I smiled back and we kept walking. We roamed around there for a while, saw a water tanker come to fill water (supplied by the farm there) and asked the tanker guy whether we could climb the truck to which he agreed. Mithun saw us do that and laughed. We smiled back at him. Then we got off the truck and came back home. On the way back we encountered an old lady (she must have been close to sixty years old) struggling with a huge gunny bag filled with disposed cardboard boxes (for fire, I assumed). My wife stopped to help her put the load on her head while I wondered whether or not others would agree with me that no person should have to work so hard at her age.
Once at home, I got busy with some work when my wife told me that Mithun was still in the fields and was moving very slowly, almost too slowly. We decided to give him something to eat. I filled a bottle with milk, and along with a packet of Parle G biscuits and a mango, I put that in an old leather bag which we no longer used. I walked to the field where Mithun sat quietly. I gave him the food and twenty Rupees, which he did not thank me for. Maybe he was too embarassed. Maybe nobody ever talks to him and he lacks these so called social graces. I didn't care any which way. I asked him whether he had any family (he doesn't), whether he could walk with crutches (he can't), whether somebody made sure that he didn't go hungry (he said something which I couldn't decipher, but I don't think he has a guardian angel). Then I asked him something which I had been meaning to ask him since that night three years ago when I gave him food and asked his name, but which I had never asked him so far as that would mean raising his hopes, and I didn't want to get into a situation which I couldn't live upto. I asked him whether he would be able to move around if I got him some sort of a cart, the kind used by many beggars. He said yes, but he was no longer looking at me. I don't know why. Maybe he doesn't like being pitied. Maybe hope makes him sad. After all, it is not easy to have a dream when you have no means to fulfil it. I asked him how old he was and he displayed four fingers. I asked him again and got the same response. I don't know. Maybe he is forty, maybe twenty four. It doesn't matter. Age is a privilege of the well fed and well looked after. For Mithun, days are long, weeks longer. I have decided to find out about the means of locomotion for him.
Came home feeling rotten. Very rotten. I finally understood why Chandra Babu Naidu lost. Wealth is being created in our country for the IT sector, but it is not helping too many other people. There are still people starving. On the same day that I read about Pune's software exports crossing that staggering mark, I met three people of very limited means. Of them, I have seen one in the same state for the last three years. If the government made better roads, with pavements, Mithun would not risk his limb and life trying not to live his entire life in one spot.
Some people have told me that to help beggars is to encourage them. Probably a true statement, but inhuman, I feel. What hope does Mithun have to earn a living when perfectly healty and educated people can't find jobs? Can you live hand to mouth on the streets, without shelter, water or food? I once saw a beggar drink from a sewer. I wouldn't think twice before giving a person like that some money to buy water, maybe a wada pao.
I feel extremely lucky for having married a sensitive person who is generous, humane and understanding. I haven't seen such unconditional concern for the well being of the needy in too many people lately.
I don't think I am making too much sense here. I certainly have no point to drive home. I just wanted to let others know that a billion US Dollars of export is all very well, but Mithun still goes hungry very regularly and I have no idea of what could be done for him or thousands like him.