This isn’t to say that every single auto-ride is a memorable one. We have a tendency to pay lesser attention to things we do regularly. But the outlier is always lurking close by, unbeknownst to us. This particular anecdote is one of those outliers.
It was an overcast morning, and I was lost in one of my reveries as the auto honked and swerved towards my destination. In a matter of minutes, it was time to alight. The meter read 21 rupees.
“Bhaiyya yeh lo 20 rs. Ek rupiah kam hai, chalega?”
(Here’s 20 bucks. Is it okay? I don’t have a rupee’s change)
“Haan, haan.. chalega”
And then he started off saying about money and change – I was too self-involved to pay particular attention. But as I was putting back the wallet in my pocket, I kept politely nodding along.
Suddenly, he whipped out all the money he had and showed it to me – whilst I heard the words “mera beta”, and “hospital”, and “700 rs injection”. I could make out the rest, as you can too.
I looked at him properly. I could sense he was flustered when had stopped midway to quickly repair something in the auto.
Instinctively, I pulled out a hundred rupee note and handed it over without reluctance. He fell at my knees, eyes full of tears, with gratitude. I told him to rush to his son and take care of him. And he left.
For the first few seconds, I felt good. As any normal person should, when he/she has been of value someone in need. Great need.
But then I felt a stab of disappointment at myself, and this feeling has persisted.
There was a 500 rupee note in my wallet as well.
I may differ from general consensus here, but I have never really cared much about money. One might say “Who does, as long as it keeps coming?”. True, perhaps. I don’t count myself a big spender. Nevertheless, at that particular point of time, 500 rupees was not even a pinprick. So why did I hesitate?
There is the possibility, as one might argue – that he was lying. And taking that possibility into account, 100 rupees was probably the right amount. But this was not the the thought process in my head.
I remember seeing a couple or more notes of 100 rupees, and I thought this would suffice. Not for a second did I believe he was lying. Especially not after seeing him break down like that.
How many times do we ignore beggars and peddlers, on the streets and railway stations? How many hundreds of times have we intentionally walked away or shooed them brusquely?
But this was an autowallah. A man with a seemingly honest profession. It would’ve taken something of monumental importance for him to abandon his self-respect and ask for money.
Then the worst possible thought occurred to me – what if those few hundred rupees was the difference between his son’s life and death? Wouldn’t it be blood on my hands? True, I am not responsible for his illness – but I was offered the chance to save his life.
I hope you get my meaning here. I’m not the kind of person who would go to orphanages and dedicate my life to making theirs easier. But that doesn’t mean I’m not humanitarian.
I don’t think it is possible to draw a line on “doing good”. Would anything ever be enough? No matter how much you give, there’ll be something more you can do. Something more to offer. But I am neither Midas, nor my wallet is of gold.
This feeling – arising out of the eternal difference between people’s needs, and our capacities – this guilt – is what I call the price of benevolence.