A lesson on the road....
Delhi does many things to many people. It desensitises them to the plight of the poor and the needy. It makes many short-tempered and vulnerable. Yet, it was not always like that. Delhi has changed but we have to keep our values going, says A.P.S. MALHOTRA... .
BEGGARS OR BESEECHERS: Little children carrying still younger children and asking for alms or selling balloons to adults at a traffic intersection in New Delhi.
DELHI HAS mutated phenomenally, since I was born here 33 years ago. I still recall its open roads with sparse but steady traffic. There was no ceaseless honking of horns, no mad rush for overtaking, and no stopping at traffic signals for interminable periods. Huge traffic jams were non-existent. There was a semblance of order. And although, Delhiites always nurtured contempt for rules (traffic particularly), the roads had not yet metamorphosed into streams of blood and gore. Buses were still a means of transport and not death warrants.
The air in the city was fresh and fit for breathing by living creatures. It was not a gas chamber. The clear sky, decorated tastefully with sparkling stars could be cherished and the gas mask, although invented, never had consumption by common civilians listed in its uses.
The occasional entrepreneur one would encounter on these streets was the ubiquitous chanawallah or the pen seller. Delhi streets had not become a major retailing avenue where everything from balloons and calculators to magazines and tyres is now sold. These neo-businessmen cover the entire spectrum of age, from tiny tots selling one balloon to elders to remote covers and windscreen covers. They crisscross the serpentine traffic with amazing alacrity which would give any trapeze artist a run for his money.
The beggars were few and found mainly on the main intersections of the city. They seemed to be from a stratum of the society, which had genuinely been bypassed, marginal souls from fringes of the system, mainly lepers. One would feel sorry for them. They would normally ask for money once or twice and if not obliged would move ahead.
I used to think about them long after having crossed that road. I wondered about their origin, the route which destiny had charted for them so as to have led them to this destination. While cuddling in my heavy quilt on brute Delhi winter nights, my mind used to wander to the leper shivering without proper clothing. My heart used to wince in their hurt and sob in their sorrow. In my idealist state of thinking, I even toyed with the idea of taking up social service full-time. Even though I was not doing anything perceptible for them, I used to bask in the satisfaction that I was better than several of my peers who used to ridicule them.
Then they mutated furiously. Virtually laying siege to the roads. They spread everywhere, from the big intersections to the inner areas, they became omnipresent. They are an assorted lot now, from children carrying children to people with bizarre shapes to ladies who are perpetually pregnant to those who feign sickness of a relative -- the list is an ever-increasing one. They have formed their own hierarchy, the white collar, and the blue one. New types keep evolving with monotonous frequency. There are the innovative types, who have discovered the overwhelming response people accord them if they adorn some religious garb, and use it to good affect. Moreover, most of them are persistent, not letting go off their prospective target until the last second.
Those are certain exceptions to the rule. Those who have mastered the act of reading people effectively. They will be wonderful writers of any book on the subject of salesmanship. These types are very selective, avoiding those who seem stingy or otherwise and soliciting only those they see as amenable to them.
Instead of pathos, one gets a feeling of extreme irritation now. Their vulnerability seems a charade; with a coin dropped in one palm, being transmitted by only God knows which medium to attract several others. No matter how much one would like to sympathise with them, the feeling is overwhelmed by their nuisance value.
Meanwhile, I also started ignoring them, with no tangible remorse, thinking of them as nothing more than eyesores that cannot be wished away. The worldly issues had consumed me, idealistic sensibilities desensitised for all issues, other than of my immediate personal concern.
I had treaded the path expected of a middle class fellow. Landed a good public sector job, married a girl of my parent's choice and on time become the father of a princess. When she was five I got a home posting and came to Delhi after a hiatus of nine years. This was my daughter's first stint in the city where her grandfather had migrated as a refugee from Rawalpindi in Pakistan. She had been insulated from such horrible sites in Solapur, a small town of South Maharashtra, where she had grown up, from her first to fifth year. While I remained impassive to these `creatures', she was appalled at their condition.
One thing which caught my attention, was her strong desire to give them something, share will be the right word.
If she was playing with a toy she would want to give it. Otherwise, she would insist on my giving them some money. My wife and me would try our best to discourage this tendency but she persisted. Then one day I noticed her, clutching her piggy bank in those tender hands. I thought this was an extension of her habit of not going out without the company of any one of her toys, which are mainly her dolls. But the first traffic signal proved me wrong. At the signal, a small child stood shivering, on a foggy, cold December forenoon. Behold, my darling opened the piggy bank and offered the child a coin. Before I could ask anything, she told me that we should share our things and good fortune with the less privileged. It was a lesson taught to me by parents several years ago, which I had forgotten. It had faded with time from my conscience. The time to revise it had arrived.
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