I had to make a brief stop near the old Enterprise office last night to drop off something. So I stopped the bike on the road to give a missed call to A, who was supposed to pick it up from me.
A passing bhel-puri seller stopped next to my bike.
“Please have something, bibi“, he said in defeated tones, “I haven’t made boni* all day.”
He was elderly and looked utterly dejected. I thought, what the hell, a few rupees wouldn’t make a difference to me. So I asked him to make me a sukha bhel. Besides, he wasn’t begging. He was just a tradesman down on his luck.
He cheered up and began mixing the ingredients. And telling me his story. It was one I had heard a thousand times. From a thousand different mouths.
The Municipality had taken away his hawker’s wares today. He had no money. How would he go home? How would he feed his family? Times were hard. And there was no money. No money at all.
I nodded sympathetically, waiting for A to come pick up the parcel.
When he finally did, the hawker politely asked he if he could ask us a question. “Please don’t get angry”, he said shyly, “but… would you be so kind as to help me out a bit? You see… I haven’t sold anything all day. And I have no money.”
I remember reading somewhere that opening a purse in India is like opening a blood vessel in a piranha tank. Too true. And the worst part is, you never know if you’re actually helping someone out or simply being fleeced by a sob-story. I’ve fallen for a zillion such stories, shelled out a zillion coins and wondered a zillion times if I was just being taken for a ride. I’ll never know. But I’ll always feel guilty for having let my rational self down.
Maybe I’m secretly just an old softie. Maybe I’m a sucker for a tear. Or maybe I just feel guilty about sleeping in a warm bed and eating a hot dinner while others sleep on the street with empty stomachs. I don’t know.
But I do know this. While charity might come out of guilt, the opposite also holds true.
*Boni: The first sale of the day, considered to be lucky for business by all enterpreneurs, big and small. I don’t know if this belief is shared by all Indian businessmen.