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Development vs Charity

December 31, 2010

I have always seen myself as a Development activist and have gotten used to viewing all events and issues from a very narrow lens. I have always found it difficult to come to terms with Charity and have found it very difficult to give to someone asking for alms – whether it is the woman carrying a child at the traffic signal in Bangalore or the old lady on the train. I have always interpreted these as failures of a just society and my mind would race to child protection issues or to the social security schemes of the Government and how the delivery system in general has failed to touch the lives of these people in India. I could never internalize what it meant for this person to beg for support and money in circumstances that demanded that they swallow their pride and self-esteem.

All this changed since yesterday after a brief conversation with Poshini who was recounting a recent incident that occurred to her in Bangalore and how she felt after it. She and Anil were returning after a lunch at a restaurant and as they were leaving the place, an elderly lady came up to them begging for alms. Poshini, who normally does not respond to such people, stopped and opened her purse to give her some money. She realized that she did not have small change and the smallest currency she had was Rs.10. Since she had stopped and raised the hopes of this elderly person, she unhesitatingly gave the tenner to her. What transpired later was something that left Poshini deeply affected. The eyes of the old lady brightened and she profusely thanked and blessed Poshini. Though this whole thing took only a couple of seconds, the spontaneity and looks on the old woman’s face changed Poshini. She realized what it meant to share the sorrow and the difficulty of another person. Suddenly, she felt that she was not the giver but the receiver of the blessings, joy and good will of helping another human being.

As I look back and think through this incident, a lot of what Swami Vivekananda said makes sense to me. He had said “Do not stand on a pedestal and say – here, my poor man, take my 5 cents. Feel privileged that there was someone who allowed you to help him.” In the world moving at such a rapid pace, we hardly have the time to process what we see on a daily basis with the freshness and novelty that it deserves. We constantly try to interpret events and incidents through the narrow lens of our own experiences and knowledge. Little do we realize the limitations and incompleteness of these experiences and knowledge that we have. In our desire to find an explanation within these limited constructs, we miss the bigger picture. In my own desire to look for a ‘developmental’ explanation for everything, I had missed out on the basic tenet of Swami Vivekananda’s philosophy of ‘Serving God in Man’. If only each of one of us could constantly observe and interpret our existence and our relationships, the world will truly be devoid of deprivation and strife and will be such a wonderful place to live in.


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