You give little when you give of your possessions;
It is when you give of yourself that you really give.
I was driving towards the Canal along the two mile Muthi road just where it begins. I saw a hand rise up in an uncertain gesture for a lift. I slowed down, looked through the rear mirror and thought I recognized the face. I stopped. The person ran to catch up, opened the door, and took his seat on my left, thanking me profusely.
Around forty, lean, short and bespectacled, he was carrying a polythene bag which he placed on his thighs and started talking at once.
“Thank you for the lift, sir. It is vary kind of you indeed. Who bothers these days? I took a chance. Perhaps you recognized a fellow social activist?”
I could not place him and continued to drive.
“I have been in it ever since we came to Jammu. It is in your blood and you remain an activist and strive for others even as you may yourself be in a mess. You know how it is, to feel for others, to do something for them, because you too are an activist. We admire your charitable spirit and your community service.”
“Thank you for the compliment,” I replied.
“Where are you going, sir,” he asked
“To KK Resorts,” I replied.
“You mean the janj ghar? Jammu is rife with janj ghars and banquet halls. Imagine the pomp and show, the exhibitionism, the utter waste that our fellow Pandits indulge in. And we call ourselves refugees! Jammu people laugh at us when they look at our extravagance while our fellow brethren live in wretched conditions in the refugee camps, starving for food, and without any means to buy milk for their kids and medicines for the sick and the dying.”
“Well, yes, marriage halls have mushroomed and weddings are getting more and more elaborate,” I agreed.
“But, no one raises a voice against it.”
“You said you are a social activist. Why don’t you?”
“Who will listen to a small fry? Sir, you could educate the masses. You are well known. People take notice of what you say.”
“I am not sure, really,” I responded candidly. I did not want to carry on with this controversial subject. I have realized long back that no amount of argument, advice and admonition cuts any ice with our people. They go by their own judgment and gut feelings. That happened when we left Kashmir in the wake of terrorism, taking individual decisions without consulting each other or paying heed to the leaders. That is happening now as we move into the twenty first year of exile, guided by our own whims, perceptions and priorities. Individualism rules the roost with Kashmiri Pandits; there is no sense of collectivism.
“But the rich amongst us are setting a bad example,” he persisted.
“Well, we are all to blame. Even the poor living in the camps do not lag behind in pompousness. They are lavish and wasteful in their own way. Let us leave it to individual judgment and capacity.” I cut the argument short and decided to change the topic, since my companion could not restrain himself from speaking.
“Do you have any idea about the road ahead? The last time I drove to KK Resorts, the highway had been dug up. They were laying the drainage pipes. I wonder if the work is finished,” I inquired.
“No sir, the work is in progress and there are traffic jams. You can take a detour from a side street that will take you to Bhagwan Gopi Nath Ashram, if you know that place. Your destination is not far from there.”
“Yes, I have heard about the Ashram but never been there,” I replied.
“I visit that place quite often. That is where I meet people who help me in my mission of reaching out to the needy. The Ashram does commendable work; it provides stipend to widows and medical aid to the sick. There are prayer sessions and lectures by enlightened men. They hold social congregations to provide our fellow refugees a chance for interaction, recreation and the celebration of festivals.” He was waxing eloquent on the activities of the Ashram, but I was scared of being held up on the way because of the pipe laying. I had an important engagement at three after lunch at KK Resorts. It was already one thirty.
“How does one take the detour?” I asked.
“Drive down to the end of this road, cross the culvert on the Canal, take left and drive another 200 meters. You will find a large sign board of a public school on the right from where a side street takes off. That is the bypass you have to take.”
“Thank you, and where do I drop you?”
“Just near the culvert. Should I come along to guide you?”
“No, thank you. I think that won’t be necessary, and you must be having your own job to do. I hope the bypass is not crowded.”
“There are several turns on the way. I hope you will take the correct ones. You may have to inquire from the passers by or from shopkeepers. Let me accompany you; you may lose the way. Your time is precious, I know,” he volunteered to be my guide.
I had been on this route once and had lost my way. I would not mind someone leading me all the way but I hated to think that this person, who asked for a lift, should now be delayed on my account.
“You are very considerate and kind. But you have nearly reached your destination. It will be presumptuous of me to take you along and ask you to return on your own and foot all the distance back. I will not like that,” I said.
“It is no big deal for me. I have free time, and it will be an honour to be in your company.” He seemed eager to come along.
“I am obliged,” I said gratefully and continued to drive.
He went on, “It seems to me, sir, that you have not placed me yet. We have met couple of times before.”
I did not remember, and hated to tell him so. I merely asked, “Where?”
“I met you the first time in your clinic several years back. I had come to show my sick wife. The second time was about six years back when you held a medical camp for the refugees at Mishriwalla. I was one of the inmates of Mishriwalla Camp who offered voluntary service on that day to your team. You examined a lot of patients, and dispensed medicines to all.”
“It is always heartening to find young men coming forward for community service,” I said.
“We do our bit, sir. The third time, you organized a vaccination camp against hepatitis and delivered a public lecture on jaundice at Mishriwalla. That was nearly three years back.”
“So you live there, in Mishriwalla Camp?”
“Yes sir. My name is Bal Krishen.”
“Nice to know you again, Bal Krishen. What is your vocation?”
“I engage myself with others who are in need. I go places to seek help for them - doctors, hospitals, philanthropists, NGOs, and others. I do not accept any cash; I provide the names and addresses to the donors and ask them to help the families directly. There are poor refugees who do not have enough to eat and can’t fend for the education of their children. In fact, it is providential that I met you today. It may sound incredible that, for quite sometime, I have been thinking of contacting you regarding a poor family in our camp who has no fees to pay for their son and daughter. The boy has been struck off from his school.”
“I am sorry about it. It is a shame that children can’t go to school for want of fees. The least we can do is to help such families,” I commiserated.
“The boy is in twelfth grade. The girl is in eighth. Her form teacher has warned the family that she would be stopped if the fees are not paid. The family is in deep trouble.”
“That is cruel of the school authorities. Why don’t the parents send them to a government school? I could put in a word with the headmaster and get them admitted. They will get free education. I would even persuade them for a stipend.”
“Sir, there is a peer pressure. Not many boys and girls from the refugee camp go to the government schools. There is a rush for private ones even as the fees go on escalating every year.” He was stating the obvious, but that should have been all the more reason that they sent children to government schools.
“There is a saying: beggars can’t be choosers. I hate to repeat it for the members of my community. Yet, I would like to inform them that they can choose better options for their wards than go about begging for help to pay their school fees. I know some of the finest teachers teaching in government schools for refugees. The teachers are highly qualified exiles. Why don’t you all send your wards to them to receive better education and have it free? The government also provides a mid-day meal to the kids which the private schools don’t.”
“You are right sir, but in this case there is a problem. The boy I alluded to will have to reimburse the outstanding fees before getting a discharge certificate from his current school. Besides, he has another few months to complete his twelfth grade and it may be wrong to take him off his school at this stage.”
“You are right,” I agreed.
“Can you help this family, sir? You must know so many organizations that help poor families; you could put in a word. I have heard how you have been helping the needy without letting your left hand know how much the right gave for help,” he said with intense feeling, looking at me through his tinted glasses, fiddling with his bag nervously on his thighs.
“How many months’ fee is in arrears for this boy?” I asked.
“Five months, sir.”
“Well that can be managed. I do not need to ask any one. How much does it amount to?”
“Around four thousand,” he replied at once. He had all the figures at the tip of his tongue.
I was astonished. “Do the schools charge such high fees? I spent just five thousand for my whole medical course of five years and here you are telling me the school charges four thousand for four months. Which is this school?”
“Sir, it is not the school fees only. There are other expenses like report cards, the printing charge for setting the papers, school uniforms, books etc. The schools find ways and means of fleecing poor students. Besides, the boy is also taking after-school tuitions from two teachers who have not been paid for two months.”
That incensed me. How dare a family which cannot afford to pay fees for a private school also opt for a post-school tutorial?
“Pray, what is the purpose of going to a private school if it is not to save the after-school tuitions?” I asked
“Unfortunately that is the trend in the refugee camps, sir. Just like the apple taking colour from other apples, we too are coloured by the place and people we live with.”
“It is a pity that you should become slaves to an unhealthy trend rather than exercise your own discretion in your private lives,” I said.
“But we are looked down upon for sending children to a school for refugees, and taunted for not being able to send them for evening tutorials.”
“Does no one chastise you for going about with a begging bowl, openly or secretly, pursuing this outrageous course? Let us not be ashamed of being called refugees, nor guilty of accepting amenities, how so meagre, that have been provided for us. But begging for special privileges is unpardonable.” I could not hide my annoyance.
“I agree, sir, but that is how it is,” he said with total resignation.
“It must change otherwise your suffering will never end. Coming back to the family in question, what is the father of the boy engaged in?
“He is jobless, sir. The family of five gets 5000 as dole. The husband and wife are at odds with each other. You see sir, poverty causes disputes and separations.”
“Are they on a divorce path?”
“No sir; I mean, they are always arguing and fighting with each other. The man does supplement the family income by doing odd jobs, but that does not amount to much.”
“And the boy, is he hardworking? Do you think, if he is helped, he will make it to a professional college?” I asked.
“I think so, sir,” he replied.
“All right, I will take the responsibility of his school fees till he finishes twelfth grade. There are only three months left and I would not like him to change his school in the midst of his curriculum.”
He was moved and caught hold of my arm in gratitude with such force it took my off guard and swerved the car for a brief second.
“Oh I am sorry, I was carried away by your generosity,” he apologized for, what he called, his stupidity. I said it was all right.
While the conversation with Bal Krishen was going on, we negotiated our way through a maze of lanes and side streets and on to a narrow strip that flanked Bhagwan Gopi Nath Ashram. Here we turned left to the main road and another hundred yards ahead we were at KK Resorts.
“It is 2 PM,” I said, looking at my watch. “You must be hungry and it will take you nearly forty minutes to walk back to Muthi. Why don’t you come in and join the lunch with me?” I suggested.
“But, I am not invited,” he asked surprised.
“It does not matter. The host will be pleased to have you. He is a great friend.” I put his unease at rest and he readily agreed.
We were greeted by my host in the sprawling lawns of KK Resorts. He was genial to my companion, Bal Krishen, whom I introduced as a social activist. “You are welcome to join us; it is an honour,” he addressed him, shaking his hands warmly.
It was a bright sunny November afternoon of 2010. There were nearly three hundred guests inside the huge hall where the groom and the bride were seated in decorated cushy chairs on a raised platform, receiving blessings and gifts from the guests who came up the steps of the platform in ones and twos. Harsh rap music blared from the Music System, and flashlights glared from the cameras and video recorders. Having blessed the newly married couple and posed for a few shots with them, I rushed outside, Bal Krishen in tow, to escape the assault from the eerie mix of the music emanating from the loud speakers placed on either corner of the hall, the chatter of people shouting hoarse to make themselves heard, and the wild dance in which children were joined by adults.
Outside, in the lawns, an equal number of guests roamed about or sat on chairs around large tables, others in two queues near the service tables one for the vegetarian and the other for non-vegetarian menus - holding plates, taking their own/godly time to pick the right pieces from the numerous dishes on display.
I met lots of people friends, relatives, and patients many of them seeking quick advice for their medical problems. Others spoke about Kashmiri Pandit politics, the many voices of our community leaders, their achievements and failures, and the shabby treatment of Pandits at the hands of the powers that be.
My companion joined freely in these discussions, enunciating his role in educating people in the refugee camps about their rights which are being denied by the administration. He even made a scathing attack on Obama for not coming up to the Pandit expectations, during his just-concluded visit to India, regarding the dirty role of Pakistan and the separatists sponsored by that country to foment violence in Kashmir. When I explained that Obama had come begging for jobs and not on a political mission, it made him laugh.
The guests moved from one stall to another, partaking of different dishes and delicacies. Finally, it was time for gulab jaman, ice cream and coffee and, soon after, we took leave of our host and other friends.
As we sat in the car, Bal Krishen, by now heady with the food and the discussion, declared, “It was great to meet so many people.”
“And to partake of a hearty lunch,” I joined.
He smiled. “It was the will of Bhagwan Gopinath. On our way he came to our rescue and we drove without any bottlenecks and road blocks. I hope it will be a smooth sailing on our return as well.”
“The Bhagwan also provided a great fare,” I put in, “warm sunshine, friends, food, gossip.”
He laughed and observed, “Sir, it was a great experience to be in the company of some enlightened people. I made many friends who promised to help me in my mission.”
“I am glad you did. In retrospect it was good you came along. I hope I did not delay you from attending to some urgent business.”
“Not at all, sir. I was going to meet my sister at Muthi. I will phone her to say sorry; I will see her next time.”
We were back on the long straight road to Muthi where I had picked him a couple of hours earlier. “Where do I drop you?” I asked.
“You may drive on. I will get down on the highway; then take a bus to Trikuta Nagar.”
“That is far off,” I remarked.
“Yes sir, I work part time for a firm there.”
“It is good you keep yourself engaged.”
“In several tasks,” he replied and picked his polythene bag to fish out files and documents one by one, like so many exhibits. He started with his wife’s prescription and again reminded me that I had seen her several years back and prescribed drugs which she still takes. Sure enough there was a prescription in my hand and some more from other doctors.
“It takes me nearly five hundred to buy her medicines every month,” he said and folded the prescriptions carefully and put them back in the bag. This was followed by some bills and receipts regarding another person’s cancer treatment, for whom, he claimed, he was collecting money from various sources. “I collected money for a patient of heart disease who died last month. I went back to a donor with the money that was unspent.”
“Where do you get all the time for others when you need to work for yourself?” I asked.
“My wife too accuses me of neglect of my family responsibilities. ‘Why do you get involved in others’ work when you have so much of your own on your hands,’ she asks me. Since I have to go places for my work it does not hurt if I can do a good turn to others on the way, I tell her. But she is annoyed with me, even angry, that I cannot maintain my family. She always reminds me how others have gone up the social ladder, even when I know what underhand means some of them employ to get there.”
“Your wife is right. We have to fend for ourselves and our families first; only then can we be of help to others - our neighbors, friends and relatives, our community and country in that order. That is how it works.”
“I have been trying hard to earn honest bread. I had to change so many jobs, mostly working for others and getting a commission, or a salary that has never been enough. I have now decided to set up my own business.”
“That sounds enterprising,” I responded.
“You see, sir, all private enterprise needs initial capital. I have none. So I thought of one which requires little capital.”
“I have just started a marriage bureau.”
“That sounds clever,” I remarked.
“It takes no initial investment; yet, you need a room, a few chairs, and a set of curtains to get going. I have none. And, I do not know if it will succeed.”
“The marriage market is busy,” I said. “Don’t you see how much our people spend on marriages? They will be happy to pay you for brokering good alliances. In fact, with the wide dispersal of the community, marriage bureaus are in great demand. The community journals have a large chunk of space reserved for matrimonial advertisements. Unfortunately our priests who would help in matrimonial alliances are a vanishing class, and the old system of go-betweens has gone out of fashion. People are more sophisticated now. Internet, Face Book, Twitter, personal blogs etc. are the in thing. I am afraid, there is no short cut to technology to be successful in this line. You will need a computer to give your work a good start.”
“Once I get started, other things will follow with your blessings. I will know in about two months whether it will work. But I need to furnish the room first. Our people are quite squeamish. They must have a nice looking place. The other day a 55 yr old asked me to get him a wife. Who will come forward, I wonder?” He laughed
“I don’t think this is something to laugh about. That is not the way your new profession will run. You have to solve the most difficult cases. That will fetch you clients. There are so many divorcees walking the streets, looking for new partners. That is where your success lies. The courts are full of divorce cases pertaining to our community.”
“You are right, sir. Why has this new trend caught our community?”
“Because of the severe social upheaval and economic strains that we have been facing in exile, because of the erosion in our cultural mores, because of the exposure, because of the wide scatter, and so many other factors,” I explained.
I did not realize that I was already near my home and had forgotten to drop him on the highway. I stopped the car outside my gate and asked him in.
“I will, next time, when you call me. For now I must be going, not before I thank you for your kindness and for the advice.”
“It is my pleasure. If I can be of help, please do not hesitate,” I replied as we shook hands. Taking my leave, he asked, “Sir, when should I call on you?”
“Regarding the boy and his sister who are facing expulsion from school,” he reminded me.
It had gone out of my mind. “Oh, well, I will let you know. Give me your phone number.”
Sorry, I don’t own a phone; can I phone you from a booth?”
I gave him my number. “You phone me in the evening, I will let you know. I would like to meet the boy and his father.”
He hesitated before he replied, “Yes sir, it can be arranged.”
For nearly ten days there was no communication from Bal Krishen. I forgot about our chance meeting. Then the phone rang. “This is Bal Krishen, sir. You had asked me to phone. When should I call on you?”
It was a Monday. I wanted leisure time to interview the father and son of the family he had spoken about. “Coming Saturday, five in the afternoon,” I said.
“I will be there sir, at five.” He hung up.
Saturday 5 PM, Bal Krishen rang the door bell to announce himself. I opened the door and found him alone. He stepped in and I led him into my drawing room.
He was carrying his trademark bag with him, wearing his tinted glasses, an outsized shirt, a red pullover, and a rather worn out light yellow woolen jacket on a pair of grey trousers.
“Take a seat and feel at ease,” I said. “Why are you alone? Where are the boy and his father?”
He looked at me guiltily, took off his specks, rubbed his eyes so hard I feared he might crush his eyeballs, and started cleaning his glasses with his dirty handkerchief that he pulled out from his upper left pocket of his jacket.
There was a long silence and I watched him in surprise, waiting for his answer. Then he said, “Sorry, I could not get the son but the father is here.”
I was even more surprised. “Why did you not get him inside? Is he waiting on the street?” I asked.
“He is sitting right in front of you, sir,” he said, jerking his head in a strange manner that seemed like a tick, his eyes without the glasses squinting while trying to focus unsuccessfully at me.
Was it a big joke, I did not understand. Was he trivializing my serious endeavour to help a family in distress?
“I am sorry, I do not understand this,” I said in annoyance.
“Sir, the truth is that I am the father of the boy I spoke to you about. I made up the story as if it were somebody else when, in fact, it is me.” He stopped and looked at the carpet fiddling with the bag in his hands.
I was flabbergasted. I did not know whether laugh or to feel angry.
“Why this cock and bull story?” I asked angrily.
“Sir, it is easy to go and ask favours for others, but when you do it for yourself it is begging. I can not bring myself up to it. You can ascertain from the camp inmates of Mishriwalla about my bona fides, about the work I do for others. You see, sir, being a social activist, I have been able to command some respect in the refugee settlement. I will be laughed at as worthless and vain if I am found soliciting my own cause. I have always endeavoured to supplement my income. I have not opened my hands in begging for my family. But it has not worked. Now I am stretched to the limits and you were always in my mind as one of the persons I could ask for help. But I had no idea how I would approach you and unfold the agony of my heart. It was providence that arranged our meeting when you stopped your car for me on the Muthi road. There could have been Bhgwan Gopi Nath’s hand in it. After all, my visits to the Ashram were not going in vain. I seized the opportunity when I saw you, and fabricated the story as if it were some one else I was trying to help. Now it is up to you to punish me for the audacity and falsehood, or forgive me. I swear all I said is true to the last detail except that it pertains to none other than me and my family.
Why should I blame this person for being a social activist that he claimed he was, and for seeking favours for others while being too proud to solicit his own just cause? But, it was the subterfuge that he devised just within a few minutes of his having got on my car that stunned me.
“I do not know what to say.” I replied, still trying to come to grips with the situation.
But he would not wait for me to let the subterfuge soak in. He opened his bag and placed a bunch of papers on the table beside me.
“Here are the documents you may want to see to convince yourself that I am not a fraud. They are the outstanding bills of my son, the school receipts, the fees paid and the balance to be paid for the last five months.”
No doubt, the receipts and the bills bore proper dates, and the outstanding against his son, Rohit, was the same amount he had spelled out on our previous meeting. There was an outstanding of 1800 against his daughter, Diksha who studied in ninth grade. I had no reason to disbelieve Bal Krishen in anything except that he had projected his own misfortune under a pseudonym. All the papers looked genuine. In any case, he was in distress and in need of immediate help.
From the polythene bag he fished out the progress reports of his son issued by his school and handed them over to me. “I did not get my son here. I feared you might rebuke me for making up this story. I would die with shame in his presence,” he said.
I looked in the documents. No doubt, his son had a good record. His had obtained more than sixty percent in all the previous tests. I handed the reports back to him. He folded them carefully with tremulous hands and placed them back in his bag. It was a like a magic box that seemed to hold every device, everything that would rescue him from adversity and danger.
I have no reason to reprimand you, but you must remember that social activism can come only after personal and family activism. You must try to reorganize your life; find a job to supplement your income.”
“Sir, I have taken several private jobs to supplement my income, though I have had little success. The employers are selfish; they pay little but get work from you beyond the stipulated hours. They hold back even the paltry salary under one pretext or another. I must have changed nearly a dozen jobs in as many years. I can show you the papers.” Saying so, he started fishing inside the bag again, when I stopped him.
“I don’t have to see them; I believe you. What is the level of your education?” I asked.
“I failed twelfth grade and never got a chance to proceed. Militancy took over and we fled Kashmir and found ourselves in a tent in Jammu, living on dole. I started looking for jobs right away and changed many from being a runner for a pharmaceutical agency, a salesman with a cloth merchant, a marketing hand for a plywood dealer, a salesman at a stationery shop, etc. Presently I am a commission agent for a company at Trikuta Nagar which sell modular kitchens, tiles, marbles, prefabricated windows and doors etc. Now, as I said, I have also stared a marriage bureau. I have all the details in here,” he said pointing again at his bag.
“What about your property back home in Kashmir? Do you still retain the title?”
“No sir, our house at Devsar, Kulgam was looted and burnt down. The small land holding fetched a paltry sum with which my father arranged my wedding to a girl from a poor family in the refugee camp. My in-laws too had fled from Vesu, Kashmir. Our two children were born in the tent.”
It was another unfolding tragedy. It would be cruel to ask him open his wounds again. I wrote a cheque favouring the school of his son for the outstanding amount. I wrote another cheque for his daughter, and handed them over to him.
He touched my feet in gratitude.
“Please do not embarrass me,” I said as he put all the papers back in his bag.
“But you have been so generous. Who cares these days even to ask if one needs any help, but here you are giving it unasked,” he said with genuine feeling.
“You have been reaching out to others in need even as you have yourself been in worse situations. Your giving has been different. I gave a little of my money. That is not much of giving,” I said as I saw him off at my door.
(From: Faith and Frenzy A collection of short stories. Vitasta Publishing Put. Ltd)