“You have not lived until you have done something for someone who can never repay you” – John Bunyan
What happens when the cornerstones of life one chooses to believe in are found shaking? Living alone away from known faces does draw you immensely close to yourself. It brings to you a great deal of soul searching. It unearths to you, the deepest of secrets of your heart. There is nowhere to run and you are forced to confront the most difficult questions, questions that rid you of any doubt of who you are or what you exactly stand for in life. This, though underrated, is by far the most difficult journey one embarks on!
It was up until July 2017, that I had imagined myself to be living by the words of John Bunyan. As I read more and more of the Gandhis and the Mandelas of the world, I could just marvel and attempt to fathom the greatness of their characters to have selflessly rendered their lives in the service of mankind.
Having lived as a little boy on the outskirts of Delhi in the early 90s, I saw my parents struggle each day and each hour to make our ends meet. As a result, I grew up with aspirations that (rather call it frustration!) millions of Indian kids grow up with. I wanted to earn exorbitant amounts of money to make up for all the miseries life had subjected me and my family to. As I think of this now, I understand the futility of this logic brought to me and many others by the society we live in. Education is seen merely as a ‘tool’ to unlock ones fortune. This, by far, is the gravest of the tragedies we live with, for education taken in the right sense must equip children to be able to make sound and independent choices, take risks and create avenues of collective growth for people around us. Sadly so, the best of the education systems in my country had failed me.
Fast forward to 2015, I had become a perfect product of the ever churning machine line. An emigrant working in the foreign land, masked and stamped as ‘one of the best‘ my country had to offer. As I grew in ranks, working harder than any previous day of my life, accumulating wealth and recognition for the merits I found myself deficient of. There was a deep dissatisfaction – this was not something I had longed for, not something I had left my country and family for. No matter the money I brought home, it never seemed to fill the void of the past. I found myself lonely and dejected like many others in a foreign land.
With whatever little experience I have in life, I have come to believe that all good things come from opportunities unplanned, the ones you stumble upon by chance. One such opportunity came my way, it brought the long lost vitality in my life. I chose to adopt and fund education for two of the most underprivileged kids (as they are called in the mainstream development lingo) in Maharashtra. As I reached out to more and more people, the desire in me to be of value to the ones in need grew. It was then that the Ebola Crisis broke out in West Africa and I secretly volunteered for a grass-roots organisation in Nigeria – the bigger the cause the bigger the gratification. I felt important.
It was July 2016, I had finally quit my job and was back in India. During my fellowship at the Ashoka University, I came across peers, professors and practitioners of exceptional intellectual capacity. All aligned to the cause of making a difference to the lives of the marginalised. One such voice which had a deep impact on me was that of Shri Bezwada Wilson, whom I met at the Delhi office of Safai Karamchari Aandolan (an organisation that works for the rights of manual scavengers across India.)
Convinced by Wilson’s ways of activism, I read thoroughly about the deficiencies in the Faecal Sludge Management Systems in India and the long standing injustice against the dalits, through works of eminent social scientists like Bhasha Singh and P. Sainath.
Meanwhile working for a well known International Education sector NGO, I kept on looking for volunteering opportunities in prominent organisations supporting the cause. Turned down by each one of them, I finally stumbled upon a small organisation working for the upliftment of rag pickers and scavengers in south Delhi. In my very first field visit, I was devastated and shaken to the core. I was made aware of my biases. I was taken to a community of rag pickers living just 200 metres away from my house in Chattarpur. I felt dejected for the fact that I had been completely oblivious to the existence of many who were forced to silently live a ‘lesser human life’.
As I tried to delve deeper into understanding the gravity of the symptom I had discovered in my own character, I found startlingly similar references to graver problems of our society in works of social scientists like Shri Harsh Mander and Shri Saeed Naqvi. They brought me closer to the root of the biases of my generation in general and my own in particular.
Our way of looking at what is demanded of us is a little misplaced. People from the elite classes and educational institutions in the recent years have taken upon themselves the responsibility of bringing about the social impact. I have somehow come to strongly dislike the word ‘impact’ and find it synonymous to ‘control’. Thus with the biases and the injustices we are taught to live with as normal.
It was not until a couple of days that I had thought of putting together this piece. The sad reality of our times is the fact that the simplest of things are brought to us by the tiniest of hands and so was this learning. I had an opportunity to visit a bunch of high spirited kids (all in the age of 4-13 years and all HIV positive), ignorant of what lay ahead they gave me the most refreshing 20 minutes in the past six months.
Thus I dread the very words of John Bunyan that I have dearly loved:
“You have not lived until you have done something for someone who can never repay you.”
These words talk highly of self importance and self worth even in the act of giving.
However, what I have learnt from the two kids above in the picture is that what one is able to give, is never a function of what one has.