Oprah received thousands of answers. Nipun comments that, as a believer in the significance of small acts, he’d probably divide the sum into five dollar grants to match the small gifts made to community micro-philanthropy programs like the five dollar club.
Nipun’s reminder of the power of tiny, compassionate gifts put me in mind of a story that goes back a few years, but which is worth a retelling.
It was late one night when I got an email from the states. It was my friend John Silliphant who, as usual, had an idea. This one was about the power of connectedness.
John was taken with the notion that he could, by sitting at his computer, with only a few small movements of his fingers, affect change on the other side of the world. “In ten seconds,” he wrote, “I sent an email to my friend in Boston, asking him to go down to the street and give a watermelon to the first person he saw. And he did.” John, of course, wanted to illustrate the power of connectivity with a more compassionate experiment. “Please go find a needy person and give them $20 [1,000 Indian rupees, at the time]. If you can, try to see how it changes their life and let me know.”
On our last afternoon in Ahmedabad, Yoo-Mi and I were sitting with a local CF volunteer in the shade of a tree at the Gandhi Ashram (atmospheric, no?), when we were approached by two young boys, one of them in tears. Had we seen anyone walking away with a yellow school bag? Apparently, the boys had set their bags down for two seconds and one of them was stolen.
At the far end of the ashram sit two buildings which house Manav Sadhna, an NGO doing wonderful things in Ahmedabad, and its boarding school for orphans and otherwise homeless kids, Ashram Shala. It occurred to me that someone might have taken the bag to Ashram Shala, thinking that it belonged to one of the kids there. So Yoo-Mi continued the CF meeting, and I took the boys down to Ashram Shala.
The bag was nowhere to be found, and the folks at Ashram Shala hadn’t seen it either. Fortunately, I found Rish playing ball with the Ashram Shala kids; he was able to speak with the boys in Gujarati.
The boy whose bag had gone missing was named Manish. He was eleven years old and in the seventh standard.
First off, we tried to calm Manish, who was still sobbing deeply over the loss of his bag. Rish suggested that, if he was worried about losing his notes so late into the semester, perhaps he could xerox the notes of a classmate to study for exams. It turns out that Manish’s worries were substantially weightier. Of immediate concern was the beating he figured to receive from his father. The longer-term implication, he figured, was that he would be forced to quit school and start working.
We took seriously the threat of the beating, but initially dismissed his latter fear as the product of a distraught child’s stress-induced imagination. We formulated a plan. Rish had a motor scooter, I had 1,000 crisp Mohandases burning a hole in my pocket, and Manish had something for us to spend them on. Off to the stationary shop! (Incidentally, this was my first time riding three-to-a-scooter — a quintessential Indian experience, though not up to par with the four-to-a-scooter ride which is the outing of choice for many a family here.)
One school bag, ten text books, eight lined notebooks, one drawing book, one set of drafting instruments, one fountain pen, and one roll of paper to cover the text books (as required by the teachers) later, Rish and I realized why Manish was so afraid of being made to quit school over the loss of his bag. Our shopping spree set us back fully 900 Mohandases! Judging from Manish’s none-too-haute-couture look, it seemed a good bet he was not from an affluent family. We have heard many tales of kids being forced to quit school for far less; and for the first time, realized how precarious Manesh’s situation really was.
We’d soon find out how right that assessment was. The plan was to find Manish’s father and mediate a peaceful resolution before any punches were thrown. Manish and his family live in a very poor, dusty, litter-strewn neighborhood, in one of a crumbling block of buildings immediately to the north of Ramapir No Tekro, which is the largest slum in Gujarat. Or I should say, they live in one room of that building. His mother earned money by helping to cook and clean at the shabby facilities used for weddings in the neighborhood and father is a psychic. Rish tried to assure Manish that he wouldn’t get beaten because his father should have known the bag would be lost a long time ago; or alternatively, that he should be able to tell us who has it. Manish wasn’t buying, but at least he had stopped balling by the time he shouldered his new school bag and departed the stationers and may have even cracked a smile, in spite of himself. After scooting around for an hour, unable to find either parent, we took Manish home.
When the chips are down, and there is no parent to be found, sometimes a good neighbor will step in to help. That was the case when we reached Manesh’s abode. In his father’s absence, some hysterical woman from next door was all to ready to turn Manesh into Hindu-burger for him — all at no extra charge. Rish was an awesome diplomat, and a pretty fair security barrier for a guy who weighs 150 pounds on a day he’s feeling bloated. But still, it was (as they say) “a process.”
About ten minutes into the “discussions”, with the neighbor still shrieking at the top of her lungs and lunging at Manish with fists clenched, Rish turned to me, smiled, and said, “I’m not sure this is going well.” We both laughed out loud at this wonderful assessment of the obvious… and, because our reaction was so bizarre in the circumstances, suddenly the shouting stopped and there was silence. I used the moment to get into the act. (Why should Rish have all the fun?) I held up both hands, palms spread toward the floor, and slowly lowered them — the international symbol for, Let’s all take a deep breath and lower the volume on this discussion. Well, almost international. Works in every language but Gujarati, apparently.
Rish was soon able to bring the resumption of pandemonium under control, and somehow, by the time we departed the tenement and bid goodbye to Manish, his family members, and his dear neighbors, there was peace, harmony, and goodwill toward men (or at least toward Manish and toward us). We received assurances that Manish would not be beaten — by anyone — and we gave assurances that it was no big deal and that we were glad to help.
Oh, one more thing. Manish promised to study his ass off (not sure if I have the translation quite right on this) and get his marks up from 70 to 80. He also promised that, whenever he saw anyone who might be in need of his help, he would offer it, just as we had helped him. Rish had said, “Are you kidding? You want me to explain ‘Pay it Forward’ in Gujarati?” “No problem,” I said, “You are a pro.” And he was.