Thursday, September 24, 2009

Cheating the poor

About seven years ago, back in the days when I was still a bachelor, I was flying back to India from the US for my annual vacation in the motherland. I was going to give my parents a surprise because I was flying in a week before the date I told them I was coming in. I landed at the airport in Bombay at around 2:30 am and since no one knew I was coming in that day, my brother who usually picks me up from the airport was either blissfully asleep or working (depending on the shift he was working). I took a taxi at the airport, put my bags in and off I headed to home, sweet home.

The taxi driver, a man who appeared to be in late 40s, was silent for the first 5 minutes of the ride. But either out of boredom or to keep himself awake at 3 in the morning, he asked me in Hindi where I had flown in from. I answered him in Hindi, that I had flown in from the US, where I worked. He asked me if I was originally from Bombay and I said, 'yes, I was born in Bombay and grew up here.' Before he could ask me anything else, I told him that I knew that he was from Kerala. He was astonished, which is quite strange, because I wondered if he did not know that he had such a strong Malayalam accent while speaking Hindi. So I clarified matters by mentioning that his accent gave his roots away and I told him that I too had roots in kerala. From then on, the entire conversation was in Malayalam.

I asked him how long he had been in Bombay. That is when he proceeded to tell me the story of his arrival in Bombay. He came to Bombay about 16 years ago. But Bombay was not supposed to be his final destination. He had come to Bombay, like countless others before him and after him, to fly out to one of the UAE countries.

He was not doing very well in his native village. He had a part-time job as a driver and he did odd jobs to make ends meet. But he had a young family to take care of. So he decided to do what countless others from India, especially Kerala (where the policies of the communist state government made sure that the state with the highest literacy rate also remained one of the top states in unemployment) were already doing - finding a job in one of the 'Gulf' countries in the Middle-east. He had visited an agent who had taken his papers and a lot of money and promised him a full-time job as a driver in Dubai and a visa. He had mortgaged his house to get the money for the agent. It was after all an investment in his and his young family's future. So the mortgage seemed ok at that time.

The agent had given him the job offer letter and a train ticket to come to Bombay, the closest international airport in those days. He was supposed to stay in a hotel for a week, by which time he would get his passport stamped with his visa. There were a bunch of others like him from different parts of India. A few of them from Kerala too, whom he befriended, because just like him, they spoke only Malayalam and not much Hindi. One thing seemed common amongst everyone - almost all of them had either paid the agent using all of their savings or by taking loans or by selling their property or by some such drastic measure.

And in a few days, when there was no sign of the agent or the passport and visa, they knew they had been conned. These were people who had risked almost everything they had for a better job and a better life. Not everyone took it well. Some just resigned themselves to their fate and went back to where they came from. But one of his new friends, who had sold everything he had to come up with the money for the agent, was so devastated that he committed suicide. But the taxi-driver could not do that, because he had a young family to feed and he could not go back either because he had to repay the loan. So after a few days, with some luck, he found a job as a taxi-driver in Bombay. He could not afford to rent a decent home, since he had to pay his loan back as well as send money home to his family. So he just rented a small room in a slum, which he shared with 5 others. He only went there to shower or use the common toilet. He spent most of his time in the cab, even sleeping in it. I asked him if he ever visited his family in that time. He said he went to kerala thrice in 16 years. Not that he did not want to go, but he could not afford more frequent trips. His children had grown up and he barely knew them. A painful thought gnawed at me then that he had basically been given a life-sentence of hardships and forced solitude, when he was actually the victim of the crime.

Soon I reached home and I bid him good-luck and I sincerely meant it. I wish I could have done something to help him, but there was really nothing I could do. There are countless people like him in Bombay and some are even more unfortunate than him. One thing growing up in Bombay does is that it de-sensitizes you to the misfortunes of others. I mean even if you feel sorry, you know that you can't do much for them anyway. You tell yourself that and move on.

I wonder when your average conman cheats somebody of their money, do they realise what kind of an impact they are having on the other person's life? Or is their vision so myopic that the only thing that they can focus on is the victim's money? Maybe they can't or rather don't want to think about anything other than the money. Maybe this refusal to think about the consequences of their actions beyond the money is an extreme form of the indifference shown by the average human (more so in Bombay) to the misfortunes of others.

Some may argue that the taxi-driver was at fault too, since he was too gullible and maybe even foolish to have someone take advantage of him. He should never have taken such a risk. But that is like saying that it is alright for a stronger person to beat up a weaker person just because the weaker person is too weak to defend himself.

Stealing from someone whose life won't be profoundly affected can still be forgivable, but the worst kind of stealing according to me, has to be the one in which the monetary loss itself becomes secondary compared to the loss of hope and spirit. Such crimes break people down and chalk out the way they lead the rest of their lives or in some cases, not live at all. And that is right up there with the worst crime imaginable.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

To shut it or not

I cant recollect exactly where I read it. It was a very long time ago in one of those ancient stories. I want to say the Panchatantra, but I am not sure. Anyway the moral of the story was "When you are not sure about something, it is better to keep your mouth shut and let people assume that you are knowledgable rather than open your mouth and remove all doubts of your ignorance."

One of the greatest inventions in our lifetime has been the internet. But unfortunately, it has given a platform for every fool to voice his thoughts (including yours truly) to a mass audience on anything and everything. A decade or so ago, it would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible to convey your foolishness to the whole world. Only your near and dear ones and maybe your colleagues from work knew what an ignorant fool you were. But not anymore. With the advent of the easily accessible mass-platform of the web and its numerous forums, people have unleashed their verbal diarrhoea (the spelling is correct, just in case you are curious - another one of those British and American spelling words) on every unsuspecting reader who is passing by. So now everyone knows that you have 'clay in your skull' (my Dad's favourite phrase translated into English - sounds much better and funnier in Malayalam) instead of a brain. People who know you and people who don't know you, now know that you are an idiot. So if you have ever posted something online that you were not completely sure of but had to let it out anyway, do carefully notice the snide smile of the next person who walks by you. Maybe he knows.

The worst places have to be forums below news articles or youtube videos or any place which allows you to post comments. Before I proceed, let me say that this blog is not included in the above list and please feel free to post comments. All your comments are very intelligent and I love it because it boosts my ego that someone is actually reading the drivel that I churn out every now and then. Anyway, back to the youtube comments section and other such places - sometimes I cringe when I see some of these comments. I wonder sometimes if people really can be that stupid? Such forums have also given rise to the fastest growing sport in the world (UFC, beware) - 'arguing-like-idiots-on-the-internet'. No qualifications required, no training necessary. If you can type, you qualify. Don't have a brain, but have an opinion? No worries, you are a contender. I wonder if these people ever stop to think how stupid one has to be to come and check if somebody has insulted you and then respond hoping that the other persons comes back to see if his insult has been returned appropriately with another insult?

Although the internet has provided huge garbage dumps for people to express their ignorance, there are some folks who are still nostalgic for the old ways and let their mouths do the talking! I salute those folks because they restore my faith in humankind. They reassure me that maybe things are really not going downhill. They have always been downhill and the web is just making it more noticeable.