A terrible migraine interspersed with the conversation of my fellow passengers taught me a lot of things and made me think — about the need for compassion and how dangerous the lack of it can be especially among wannabe social ‘reformers.’
The migraine struck in the middle of the night and I knew it would get worse the next day. The journey from Delhi to Bangalore involved two nights and a day and the day was sure to be ruined for me. The next morning, while the others in my bay, two young men and a woman – all traveling separately – were rested after a good night’s sleep, all I wanted to do was sleep in a dark and very quiet place. But that was not possible travelling in a train, especially with three very talkative co-passengers in my bay.
Note: The following incident can only be an once-in-a-lifetime experience, because I have never seen or experienced anything like it before or after. This is also not a sweeping indictment of graduates from elite institutions.
Through the hammering in my head and the flashing lights behind my closed eyes, I heard voices, especially of the young man who had made a dramatic (and noisy) entry the previous evening, with just ten minutes to go for the departure of the train. I had a small run-in with him about his excess baggage that he tried to stack in the aisle after filling up all the available spaces. Travelling in a confined space for nearly two days can be claustrophobic without passengers cluttering the little moving space with their luggage, and my suggestion to him to put away some in the luggage rack in the corridor was met with a snarl. Ultimately better sense prevailed and he did what I had suggested but kept making trips at regular intervals to check on them as he roundly condemned the attendants and others as being ‘thieves’. I later learnt that he was a fresh graduate from IIT Delhi and was on his way to his first job in Bangalore.
It was he who was talking now. He had dreams, he said – for India and Indians. ‘We have so much social consciousness in our college. We want to reform the society with our knowledge.’ I winced at his words as much as my throbbing head. Over several hours, he recounted the ideas, every one of them worked meticulously out in theory, backed with stats and figures as only an alumnus of that august institute can do. His fellow passengers were rapt listeners. I must admit that even to my migraine wracked brain, they sounded impressive!
‘…..India can be only saved by education. Poverty can’t be controlled otherwise…Every child needs to get a good education,’ he said passionately. His plan to educate his ignorant countrymen was grand – one that would bring free education to poor children in all the districts of his state to begin with. He had even worked out the funding problem – in theory.
‘Foreign funds are the easiest to get for NGOs in education,’ he assured his spellbound audience.
There was a lull for a while and just as I was drifting off to much needed sleep, he thundered, ‘I want to be a social reformer. We need educated young people to enter politics; everyone who is in power is corrupt! We need honest young people to clean it up.’ (It sounds very familiar today, doesn’t it?)
He spoke at length about the poverty he had known, with his father singlehandedly supporting both his and his dead brother’s family. He spoke about the extra money his mother and aunt were forced to earn by making pickles and papad. ‘I have known the worst poverty,’ he mused eliciting some admiring comment from the woman about his success. He sounded not humble, but smug as if expecting the kind of response he got from the woman.
All through the monologue, I was fighting the rising bile. I staggered through the lurching carriage to empty my guts out. Feeling faint, I staggered back almost falling. One pantry car attendant with his tray of samosas, held my arm to steady me and saw me to my berth. ‘Aap theek ho? Aapke liye chai laaoon? Koi aur cheez?’ (Are you ok? Shall I bring tea or some other thing for you?), he asked solicitously. I shook my head and ducked under cover. My co-passengers, notably the service-minded young man didn’t react to any of the happening around him.
Ajay, for that is the name of the pantry car boy, came several times to see how I was and insisting that I should eat or drink something. I am sure he lost some money in sales commission because of his frequent visits. Still no response from my co-passengers. After all they had much larger issues to deal with — like the state of the country, than worry about an older woman traveling alone and was sick. Once or twice I requested them to please speak more softly, but beyond a cursory ‘sorry’ and a momentary reduction in the volume of the voices there was no change. The decibels picked up with the tempo and fervor of the young man’s dreams for his country. Perhaps he was angry with me for intervening the previous evening about his luggage. It was only after a heavy lunch that the sounds ceased in the bay and there was silence. I could finally sleep (despite the heavy snoring of the men) and that stopped my nausea and vomiting.
By late evening, I felt better and Ajay was the happiest to see me sitting up when he came to check on me. When I asked for some juice, he literally ran to get it for me from the other man who was selling that. It made me tear up. The woman was awake and she tentatively smiled at me. Nothing more. Perhaps illness spooks out some people and I was unlucky to have co-passengers who all fell in that category!
During dinner, Ajay brought me some extra soup, insisting that I needed it to keep my energy. Why was he so sweet to me? Maybe I reminded him of his mother or aunt, or maybe he was just a nice human being with empathy for another. His concern touched my heart.
I don’t like travelling like strangers during long train journeys and try to make small talk. Besides, I knew a lot about at least one of my co-passengers. So I told him I was impressed with his dreams and wished him luck . I asked him for his mail id because I wanted to share some of my thoughts apropos his dream for India. Thrilled to have impressed even a sick woman, he scribbled it in a piece of paper saying apologetically, ‘I will get my visiting card next week.’
I lay that night in my berth, a jumble of thoughts jostling in my head and making me fear that the migraine would return. These were some of the conclusions I came to:
- Service without humility and compassion is at best a dole that makes the giver feel superior and the receiver feel like a beggar. In other words, giving and sharing are useless if they are done with condescension or contempt for those one is giving to.
- Lofty ideas and theoretical dreams not backed by intent and action are useless and even dangerous because then they are agenda-driven.
- When one is intent on serving others, it is good to start small, but start immediately, lest the wish to do so dissipates after a time.
- Education means more than a degree, even one from an elite institution like the IIT. Also, it does not entitle anyone to feel like and expect to be treated like a demi-god.
- Vanity and self-centeredness are contraindicated in a social worker.
- Forgetting one’s roots is one of the worst things a human being can do. It reduces his or her humanity.
When I compared the two, Ajay, who was also from the home state of my elite friend, came out being the better. He was more educated in a non-academic, but in the real sense of the word. What was more, he had compassion that was so lacking in the former. So what if he didn’t have grandiose dreams and schemes for his countrymen? I would have bet my last rupee on him and the cleaner boy who returned the coin thrown to him out of contempt. He had more dignity and class than my ‘educated’ friend.
I should have let it go. But I couldn’t. I felt that I should speak to him about the things that bothered me. I got up and wrote a letter to him, giving him all the benefit of doubt for his behaviour. Maybe he was really a good human being who had been momentarily blinded by his extraordinary achievement. I later mailed it to him and got a reply from him some days later — a profuse apology for his behavior with an assurance that he had meant all he said about serving people. He wished me good health! Subsequent mails (no, I didn’t harangue him 🙂 ) went unanswered.
PS: I don’t know where he is now, or what he is doing, or even if he is doing the work he so passionately talked about. But I hope that he has not gone the way of a certain someone with a similar elite degree who came into public life with honest intentions and sincere plans for the common man of the country; someone who has instead tasted the headiness of power and learnt the ropes of the dirty game of politics in double quick time — of divisive vote banks, hate mongering and sops to attain his goal. Perhaps we deserve the likes of them because we treat them like demigods who have come to deliver us and give them the power to misuse it.
I sincerely hope my train friend has not turned out like that and is working with compassion and humility and succeeding. Maybe he is part of the young brigade at Super 30,that is preparing poor students for the entrance exams. And if he is reading this, I would like him to also read the lovely post written by my dear friend Bhavana on how to nurture compassion.
I would love to hear your impressions about the whole episode. Do share them, won’t you?