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15th Aug, Independence Day, a Beggar and a Tea

On this 15th August, afternoon, I was sipping on a tea at a roadside stall, sitting on a bench, waiting for a colleague, when I heard an aged female voice over my head, 'चहा पाजतु का दादा' ('would you help with some tea'). Before I could realize that there was a fairly old couple, woman having a limped leg, and old man, mostly her husband in 70s, were asking the two cab drivers for some tea, the cab drivers responded, 'पाजतु ना' (sure why not). I generally have a strict rule of not heeding to the pleas of beggars (and I have my moral position on that considering the beggar mafia openly ruling the streets in Mumbai), but once in a while some one catches your attention and you just can't help stopping yourself from doing something if not just giving away 2 rupees. This time the instant assurance of the cab driver to buy them two cups of tea caught my eye and especially ear. The old couple did not look exactly like beggars, their clothes were fine for someone from rural area, just helpless people out of home, out of money and without any support at all. The driver asked her about her situation, whether she has a family etc. to which the woman told him about her only son, a drunkard, who is selling off every vessel and nut of the house for his liquor, his beaten up wife has left the house and prefers staying at her parents, even the land and farm in the village are on the way to get sold, the son has lost so much of himself that he even runs after his father with a knife in hand for money for his drink. So finally, they have been thrown out to roam on streets and beg for 2 rupees as the old man could not get any physical work, while woman was already on one leg and a stick in hand. Quite a heart-touching story it was, and for most of it, it looked real.

I was silently appreciating the cab drivers kindness of lending the tea for two, just then he said something to the woman, something so drastic, unimaginable, sudden and sharp, that it took that moment to a completely different level for me. "Now listen to me, do one thing, both of you, there's a railway-station nearby, just go there. Walk a few yards beyond the platform and then just sleep on the tracks. And ohh yes! bring your son too and make him go under the train before you go." Cruel. Disgusting insults on two lives of more than 70 years by someone in his 30s, in exchange of two 'cutting chai' Rs 6 each. Realization of why one poor showed some pity on another poor, for being able to insult in such a way and enjoy the authority to do so for just 12 bucks was worse than my own cruel rule of ignoring beggars and a little guilt that follows at times. But that was not the end. The woman was adamant for continuation of her son's life, as well as her own. Death was not an option for her, life, no matter what it meant had to be lived. I didn't understand the need of her 2-3 sentences of adamant denial to the man who advised death, but appreciated the will to survive.

Once this was settled, the drivers gone, and couple calmly sipping the tea, I initiated a talk with the woman with no specific plan. As she went on about her helplessness, and as she said 'our nature is of giving not begging, but have to do it', it had both a reflection of a decent past, a little bit of pride, and huge hollowness of everything before survival. With an intent to help in a more meaningful manner, I asked her to stop roaming around like beggars at this age, asked if she knew anything about any charitable organizations nearby. On knowing that the couple knew nothing of the sorts, I gave them options where they could find some help. At least a roof, and some food on daily basis. This included some charitable orphanages, Temple trusts, rich spiritual shrines nearby, including a Balaji temple, Gurudwara, Sai Baba temple, a list of social and govt organizations who could help, and were within few minutes distance by train, the nearest of them being a Buddha vihar at a 5 mins of walking distance. She looked intrigued and willing to consider those suggestions over the option of begging on streets. But then something happened that took me on another mental journey altogether.

This woman, defeated by life, defeated by the conditions, betrayed by her own blood, having been asked to die in exchange of two cutting chai, having lost the meaning of her life if anything was there, came closer and in a slightly lowered voice, repeated the list of places I suggested, took names of all the gods, whose named trusts I suggested, went on adding gods from her own list, and said she will go to any of them, Balaji will do, even Sai Baba will do, "but I will NOT go to the Buddha temple!" Shocked and taken aback, I tried to recompose and asked "why not, its just there, beyond this street" but "No, not that. No Buddha temple!"

My friend had arrived, he called me out, and off we went. I kept looking back for a while, not sure if indeed physically turning my neck or just in my thoughts, but her words kept coming back.

Its not that I didn't get what she meant, she certainly did not know a thing about Buddha's teachings, so there was no way I could take it as an offence against Buddha, also since I wasn't selling her any religion or preaching there, merely advising on what places she could go, being an atheist actually listing most of the temples, her choice of any of them had no bearing on what I should have felt. But why would a woman, in her condition, rather than making a simple choice of where she should go, takes efforts to let me know where she would NOT go, no matter what. So all my educated and intellectual friends, please spare a moment to think over it why this would have happened. Why for a poor Hindu (ahh well there were enough signs on them to suggest that, so don't bring up the stereotypical allegation of stereotyping religion. Sometimes common sense prevails), a Sikh charity is all right, any imaginary god is fine, government is fine, even a Muslim sage is fine, but not a very own Indian real person of the stature of Buddha whose teachings have shaped major part of our accommodating non-violent culture, not so fine? Put your grey cells to work and make me understand the contradiction to the intellectual Indian's constant rhetoric that Buddha is very much Hindu and very much a part of the same system, just another 'panth'(branch), in the same family of spiritual and cultural traditions against the practicality of this unusual separatism.

No, its not just Buddha. Of course he does not fit as well as the intellectuals try to fit him into the Indian Hindu nationalist spiritual rhetoric. But there is something deeper than that. If you know even a little bit about rural Maharashtra, Buddha means only one thing, the new God of the 'untouchable' people, the 'untouchable God'. By all means the emotional journey over the sad life of a poor old couple, took me through several planes and suddenly dropped in the pile of castes. Making me realize that even beggars could have a false-pride, note that its not your good romantic self-esteem, its an outrageous, unnatural, hollow pride. And my dear friends, I know some of you who love me a little extra would be jumping to put the credit of bringing caste into this, but no, it was forced. Forced by the woman thrashed on the roads, by her own son, still having a hollow sense of pride and separatism based on a very 'important(?)' aspect of her life, the caste. Being unnecessarily looked down or rejected by the people with possessions is not at all new for someone from depressed class, but being looked down, for no reason from someone with no possessions, no powers, no resources and no knowledge, only on the basis of a false sense of caste-pride and that hollow dignity was all new experience that intellectual educated Indians will rarely understand. No my dear friends, its not that a beggar cannot look down upon someone, its not that a beggar cannot have a self-esteem, every researcher and every sage who lives on donation amounts and free alms is a beggar, so any beggar with apt possessions in various moral and ethical forms can and should have the dignity, self-esteem, self-respect, but when its based on something as stupid and as ugly as caste, its not a self-esteem, its a farce, ugly farce, that's going on for generations after generations. Its everywhere, and each one of the depressed class human, and not just human but even their God, is facing it every day. I could give number of examples of casteist attitudes and insults thrown towards people I know personally, experiences of my own, but don't want to dilute the intensity of this one experience, they are more of a regular offences, everybody likes to turn blind eye to them. But no matter how much you deny, caste is 'the' en-slaver of Indian mind, just remember how you got married or how in future you would and you would know what I mean. The society and the mind of Indians are still not free from this mental gutter which does transform itself into physical plagues on a regular basis. The freedom is a long awaited dream and far away target. Hope the real freedom will rise some day. May the old couple get to any one of the place and spend their remaining life in peace and in search of meaning, not just bread and pride.

[P.S. So my educated intellectual friends, no matter what your opinions are, on what basis they are formed, and no matter how much you declare yourself not guilty of being part and fuel in this entire scheme of caste based discrimination, atrocious culture and separatism, if you utter a word about caste being just a political tool, not a social evil as much, it being only irrelevant and non-existent or a non-significant problem, and claim that your religion(whichever it is) has no base for this menace, and its the dalits/untouchables that are responsible for its existence, just imagine the level of sanity that would be attributed to you. If there is any anger or bitterness in my words, its not against the poor lady, she is just another slave of the system, so the anger is against this system, against this culture. Also this is not just a random rambling, yes there would be proactive opponents who would ask what's the use of all these rants. But before going into the usefulness of words against actions and before some outrageous good-for-nothing person asks about the evidence of action(the usual 'what have YOU done'), let me remind that I am not obliged to answer that, this is a collection words and thoughts based on personal experience without any specific target, apart from a simple objective of expression and hope that even if some of the people realize how deep rooted the imprints of caste and its false pride and divisiveness are on the Indian mind, even if only a few realize how much disservice this attitude of forced separatism with false superiority is doing towards overall economic, social and spiritual growth of the people of this country and people who follow this culture, even if only one person at a time changes his/her mental attitude on reading such snippets of experiences, it would be enough for this much writing effort. You don't inhale each breath with a plan to change the world, with every breath its only the oxygen that matters, rest goes on independently. Hope sane people get sane message to ponder upon from this slightly painful but a lot more disturbing experience. (uff, see how many defenses one has to be prepared with even before talking about such topics in a supposedly free speech society!)]

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