Helping strangers

It first happened to me when I was in Bangalore. I didn’t own a car at that time and used to walk about half a kilometer from my office building to catch an auto from a queue outside the nearest mall. My manager worked out of the firm’s US office, the time difference meant meetings were often held at strange times and I guess I was returning home later than usual that day. I hadn’t had dinner yet and was debating whether I should grab a burger at the KFC in the mall. Perhaps that is why I didn’t notice them till they were only a few feet away.

It was a family of three – a man, his wife and a son who couldn’t have been older than five. Definitely from the Haryana-Rajasthan region by the way they were dressed. Once you’ve been on the Rohtak-Bhiwani-Loharu-Pilani roadways bus, you’ll always recognize the pagdi, the black shoes with pointed tips, the bright saree with the pallu held over the head anywhere.

It was the man who did all the talking. Did I speak Hindi, he asked, his accent a thick Haryanvi. When I nodded, he smiled, a little comforted, a little hesitant. He said he and his family had come to Mysore and were on their way back to Panipat. They were going to board the Rajdhani back to Delhi but someone had stolen all their belongings. He showed me his train ticket with tears in his eyes, his voice breaking. Could I lend him some money, he asked. Just enough to get to the train station and perhaps to buy some dinner?

I don’t remember the thoughts that ran through my head as I pulled out my wallet but I don’t think “how do I get out of this mess?” was one of them. “How much would be enough?” was probably it. But it didn’t matter because all I had was a hundred rupee note. I handed it to the man who joined his hands in gratitude. I could hear his wife muttering her blessings as I walked away.

The KFC was about to close and was only accepting cash (their phone lines were down). The nearest cash machine was at the other end of the mall and I skipped dinner that night – my stomach might have been empty but my heart was filled to the brim.

And then, a couple of weeks later I saw them again. The same trio – this time speaking to someone else. No one was looking at me as I walked by and so no one noticed the expression of utter shock on my face. Did the man speak Hindi, the father was asking. When he was waved away, he turned to me next. I could see he was about to speak, ask me the same question I had answered only a few days ago, when he stopped in his tracks. Perhaps he recognized me. In the next moment, he was crossing the road with his wife and child and hurrying away. I didn’t rush after them. I didn’t say a word.

For months on, I tried to remember what I saw on that train ticket. Did it actually say Rajdhani? What was the date on it? What were the names? I don’t think I felt angry but it was a strange sort of feeling. A mixture of hurt, sadness and betrayal.

#

The next time, it was outside a different mall. I was alone, waiting for a friend with a can of Coke in my hand, when a man walked up to me. He was dressed in a black pant and a white shirt, a bit like one of those salesmen who sometimes knock on your door on a Saturday afternoon selling a magazine subscription. He had the same desperate look on his face and another very similar story. He said he lived in Malleshwaram (an area of Bangalore a few kilometers away) and had come over for a meeting. But as he was heading back, he realized he didn’t have his wallet on him anymore. Someone must have nipped it. Could I lend him the bus fare so that he could get back home?

I was immediately suspicious. I told him I could give him my phone to make a phone call but he said his brother would have to come from across town. It would be much easier if I could spare a tenner for him. He looked me in the eye and said that it was fine if I didn’t want to. He understood.

I pulled out my wallet and handed him a ten rupee note. I still remember his smile. He shook my hand and said that if I gave him my address, he’d try and get the money back to me. I declined.

My friend was running quite late that day and it left me with a lot of time to ponder over what had just happened. Had I just been conned again? I went over every word the man had said looking for clues but the was nothing conclusive. And in the end, I decided I didn’t want to know. I was glad I hadn’t given him my address. You see, if he knew where I lived and I didn’t hear from him, it would have convinced me that I had been taken for a ride again. But now ignorance would lead me to its promised proverbial bliss and I could enjoy the simple joy that arises out of helping someone. However, I knew in my heart that the pleasure was no longer pure. At the back of my mind, there would always be the nagging thorn of doubt reminding me of a smile that might have been fake. I would never really know.

#

The third incident was in London. I was walking back home from work and there was an old man on the pavement. He was sitting on one of those motorized carts that those who have trouble walking sometimes use in this part of the world. He called out to me when I was walking past him and dropped a handful of change into my palm. He said he was running out of petrol on his cart and he barely had enough to get back home. And he wanted a cigarette. Could I please get him a pack of six? I knew where the nearest shop was – a good 5 min walk away – but I couldn’t really say no.

As I walked to the shop, I realized I had no idea how much a pack of cigarette costed. I don’t smoke, neither do most of my friends, and I have never bought a pack. I counted the change the man had given me – it came to a little over a pound.  Didn’t quite seem enough.

And it wasn’t. When I asked the shopkeeper the price, I realized I would have to put in some money from my own pocket. For a moment, I thought I shouldn’t buy the cigarettes. But what would I tell the old man? Walk back to him just to say that he didn’t give me enough cash? Maybe I should just forget the man and go home. But he had given me some of his own money. Surely I couldn’t just keep that. Oh well, I pulled out my credit card and stuck it into the machine.

The old man was waiting for me at the spot where I had left him. When I handed the pack to him, he grinned through his bushy beard and thanked me. His practiced hands flipped open the packet and one of the sticks was soon at his lips. Maybe I should have asked him for the money I had paid but I didn’t. He was old enough to be my grandfather and it didn’t seem right.

I was really annoyed as I walked back. Annoyed at how I felt. Annoyed at the universe at large. It’s a pretty rotten world that we live in if we can’t feel the satisfaction of helping someone without the guilt of letting oneself be duped.

#

The last chapter of this series took place last week. On the street that leads up to my flat, between the spot where I met the old man and the shop where I bought the cigarettes, I saw him again. The old man was on his feet this time, a walking stick in his hand, ambling along slowly with a woman who I imagine was his daughter. I walked past the two of them, the woman holding a hand out for her father, when the old man’s eyes met mine. There was a flicker of recognition and he smiled, slowly lifting his hand in a half wave. I smiled back.

It was enough. Quite enough.

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