A Gift of Service

Within my circle of friends, it is not uncommon to give gifts-of-service in lieu of material gifts for birthdays and other special events. Saturday afternoon, the day before Pavi and Viral’s wedding, a small group of friends ducked out of the festivities for about four hours to dedicate a gift of service to them.

There had been talk of doing a massive service gift on Monday, once the wedding activities had concluded and before people dispersed to corners of India, London, and the US. But travel schedules had changed, and by lunch on Saturday it was clearly a now-or-never situation. With a couple-hour break between parties, and with the understanding that we can show up a little late to Saturday night’s event, we decide to hit the streets.

Madurai is home to the Menakshee Temple, justly famous for both its size and its rococo architecture, which marks both the spiritual and geographic center of the city. Six of us, acting on our own behalf and for those who could not join us due to pressures of the celebration schedule, head for the temple. We have no plan, exactly, but know that something will take shape once we start. It always does.

Our group includes the angelic Ajali Desai and the formidable Dipti Vaghela (about both of whom I need to write more), seeker Nirali Shah, and John Silliphant and Jayesh Patel, who are quite simply two of the most compassionate and inspiring people it has ever been my privilege to have known.

As we wait for a auto-rickshaws to take us to the heart of the city, Jayesh-bhai spots our first opportunity: ragpickers just down the street who are sorting the days trash they have collected. We greet them and begin helping to segregate paper from plastic bags, from hard plastic, from glass, from rubber – and putting the refuse into burlap sacks.

Indians are habituated to littering their environment in a manner so comprehensive, so utterly thoughtless, so blind to any concept of hygiene or aesthetics that one would almost believe that they were taught (and brutally examined on) the fine points of environmental degradation in school. Ragpickers form the backbone of the system that serves to keep the streets of the cities from looking like a land-fill garbage dump. As Jayesh-bhai says of India, “A thousand hands that throw the trash, but only two hands pick it up.”

Sorting trash is nasty, fly covered, thoroughly unclean work. (Remember, the same streets that serve as garbage bins also serve as toilets as well.) This is the only way that some of the poorest-of-the-poor and the lowest-of-the-low can make a living, selling their bounty to recyclers for a single rupee per ten kilos. The ragpickers are initially alarmed, then confused, then bemused when we take over their work. Only our handshakes and smiles eventually put them at their ease. (The fact that I know the words for “yes”, “no”, and “give me five!” in Tamil puts me at the very top of our class in verbal communication skills.) An English speaker wanders by and joins the small, confused crowd that has gathered to watch; and we ask him to explain to the ragpickers that we admire the service they perform for their city and that we want to participate in their service as a form of wedding gift. In a country where lavish spending on wedding presents is the norm, our explanation only serves to further confuse. But by then the mood has already been transformed to one of fellowship, joy, and celebration.

When the trash had been sorted and loaded onto the back of a rickety tricycle lorry, we hail autos and head for Menakshee Koil. Jayesh-bhai and John devise the outlines of our ad hoc game-plan: we will walk along the perimeter walls of the temple, clipping nasty, overgrown fingernails (public health experts estimate that as much as 30% of the illness afflicting the poor in India, a country that eats with its fingers, could be eliminated by keeping fingernails short) and sharing a smile and kind word with the beggars and beggar-children who line the foot path. John buys biscuits to give to the hungry. I pick up a towel from a street vendor, which we soak at the public tap and use to wash the faces and hands of the small children and the mentally ill as we move down the street along the east side of the temple. Having fanned out along the block, it still takes us nearly an hour to cover the 300-or-so meters of the east flank of the temple.

As we approach the southeast corner, we come upon a group of streetsweepers, a group for whom I have always had a soft-spot. There are two basic differences between streetsweepers in India and in the US. First, the only thing even remotely mechanized about the procedure in India is that the collected trash is put into a tricycle-mounted bin. The sweeping and pick-up is done by hand, with brooms made of bundled twigs. Since the broom must be swept along the ground at a low angle, it is difficult, dust-choking, back-breaking work. Perhaps this is explains the second difference: the work is always done by women.

There is something oddly wonderful about the sight of women draped in colorful saris hefting bricks and concrete at construction sights, sorting trash, or sweeping the streets. There is a discontinuity between the rugged work and the delicate wardrobe; but there is also something ennobling in this. The sari is a symbol of retained femininity and retained dignity, despite the exigency of earning a living by hard labor.

If there is one other expression of femininity in South India that I absolutely adore, it is the custom of the women to wear garlands of jasmine in their hair. There is an old Tamil poem which asks the question: does her hair smell so wonderfully because of the beautiful jasmine, or is the jasmine so fragrant because it rests in her lovely hair? Directly across the street from the sweepers sits a flower seller. 18 rupees later, I am helping the three streetsweepers tie gorgeous perfumed strands into their plaits.

Just then, Jayesh-bhai and John appear. These are two guys who never met a broom they didn’t like. Without a second’s thought, they snatch the brooms from the women and begin cleaning the footpath and curb along the south side of the temple. Anjali and I pick up the piles of trash and load the tricycle bin, while Dipti and Nirali continue to clip nails and wash faces of the pavement dwellers along the way.

An astonished crowd begins to gather as we make our slow progress down the street. Eventually we find a man who speaks good English, and we ask him to explain to the others that this is our gift-of-service to our friends who would wed the next day. He tries the explanation a couple times, with variations and elaborations, but most of the onlookers seem even more confused. At least one person gets it, however: a young, muscular, handsome-if-hard-looking auto driver who emerges from the group, beaming a smile that is even wider than the nasty, well-healed scar that bisects his forehead. He greets each of us in a manner so direct, so abrupt, so loud that it could only be described as confrontation, were it not for the overwhelming joy in his smile and love in his eyes. Our effusive new friend is Veerappan, who informs us in competent, broken, unschooled English that this is the greatest thing he’s ever heard of. He is our translator, constant companion, and ambassador of high-amplitude goodwill for the next three hours.

Somewhere in mid-block someone hatches an idea: we will host a dinner party for the streetsweepers and pavement dwellers on our newly-beautiful swathe of footpath. I know where we can buy banana leaves to eat from, and buckets from which to serve rice and sanbar; but we need a recommendation from Veerappan about where to get the food. Now a full fledged member of the wedding brigade – albeit one who does not dirty his hands with trash collection – Veerappan wastes no time in nixing our strategy. It would be so much more fun, he says, if we took them to a restaurant. He takes Jayesh-bhai and Dipti by the hands and leads us down the block to Sri Shankar Bhavan, a grimy, dark little place which he proclaims is the best purveyor of meals on the street. Luckily, the proprietor speaks Hindi, and he can barely believe his good fortune when Jayesh-bhai tells him we will be 50 people for an early dinner. His enthusiasm for the business changes rather abruptly, however, when he learns who they are. Jayesh-bhai persists, and eventually our reservation is made: 50 all-you-can-eat South Indian thallis at Rs. 20 each.

We return to our miraculously clean sidewalk to begin to invite people to dinner. Veerappan can hardly contain himself. He approaches one pavement dweller after another, screaming at them to join us for dinner. “Right message, wrong feeling,” I try to explain to him. He doesn’t understand. So I muster my bluster, step up to within an inch of his face and yell, “Veerappan, please eat dinner with us!” “Or we can do it this way.” I step back and approach him gently, both my hands extended to receive his; I smile at him, and softly ask him if he would do us the favor of joining us for dinner. He smiles and gives me a big, smelly, sweat-stained hug, before running off to grasp the hands of the first person he spots and to scream a slightly warmer, if no less jarring, dinner invitation at them.

We have an hour-or-so until our dinner party begins, and Veerappan is insistent that we visit the temple. After a quick tour of the major halls (the inner sanctum is “Hindus only”), we exit and sit on a low wall by the south gate, just inside the temple compound. Sitting on the ground near us is a disheveled old man, abandoned by his family and left to beg at the temple to survive. He extends his hand toward Neerali to ask for money. Jayesh-bhai intercedes. “Come here, brother,” he says in Hindi. It matters not the least that the man speaks no Hindi. Part of Jayesh-bhai’s magic is his ability to communicate almost anything to practically anyone with pure affection. The man scoots his haggard frame close to Jayesh-bhai and again extends his hand for alms. Jayesh-bhai takes our damp towel and gently washes the grit from the man’s face. He asks the man to turn around, so that he is sitting at Jayesh-bhai’s feet, facing away. Jayesh-bhai takes a small bottle of hair oil and begins to massage it into the man’s shaggy white mane. The man offers no resistance. He relaxes and beams as Jayesh’s hands move over his scalp as expertly as any professional Indian barber. After several minutes of scalp and forehead massage, Jayesh-bhai takes out his comb and gently grooms the old man. Only his ragged clothes suggest he is anything other than a well-heeled gentleman.

As usual, Veerappan cannot conceal his amazement at Jayesh-bhai’s ability to connect with others, and he excitedly insists that Jayesh-bhai now take a turn sitting before him. If the old man’s massage was delivered with a deft caress, the one Jayesh-bhai received from Veerappan was, well, lovingly brutal. Veerappan has only one speed: on. Somehow, Jayesh-bhai survived the experience with only slightly less hair than he had to start with, admittedly not a huge volume. In the meanwhile, Nirali clipped nails and chatted-up several older women, while Anjali patiently oiled and combed the matted grey locks of another. John and Dipti blew balloons John had purchased and played with the children in the temple’s outer courtyard.

The dinner is a thing of beauty. Our streetsweepers are the first to arrive, but they are followed closely by the other friends we had made that afternoon. In all, 75 meals are served. Some of the guests are smiling so hard they can barely eat; others are eating so quickly they can barely smile. The entire restaurant staff quickly gets into the spirit, doling out portion-after-portion of rice, sanbar, vegetables, rasam, and curds. John and Anjali help the waiters – in true Seva Café style. Nirali, Jayesh-bhai, and I visit and eat with our guests. I eat with the streetsweepers, who each put down enough food to feed half-a-dozen people.

We quickly change clothes, wash our faces, and arrive at the splendid hotel where the pre-wedding party is already a couple hours old. We no-doubt still smell a little funky, but we are ready for our second party of the evening.

p.s. I’m sorry I do not have photographs of the afternoon of service at Menakshee Mandir. I didn’t have my camera with me; and anyway, my hands were busy with other things.

p.p.s. The following afternoon, another group of friends – Anjali, Jayesh-bhai, Nirali, John, Tim, Priya, Priya’s mom, and Yoo-Mi – went to the Mahatma Gandhi Museum and dedicated an hour’s meditation to the wedding couple.


1 Response to “A Gift of Service”

  1. 1 millyonair 16 August 2007 at 9:12 pm

    This is quite possibly one of the most beautiful stories I’ve ever read! As I was reading, my eyes were teary. What a gift!

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