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Outsourcing kindness

Paromita VohraLast Sunday, I found myself in a most intriguing situation. I was invited to show a film of mine, by a group that is organised around a rather unusual idea: Kindness. Not as an occasional act but the fundamental basis of our lives and interactions.

The concept of kindness exists in every culture. Rehem, karuna, compassion, mercy are spoken of in every religion. Most of us believe that we are essentially kind, and so cannot imagine that we, in any way, participate in perpetuating unkindness.

The term ‘pay it forward’ might be cited by some as an example of how the concept of kindness gets discussed in modern terms. But I’ve always been a little uncomfortable with the very transactional basis of this idea — that there is a debt owed to someone, which is to be repaid to someone else. And then what?


Illustration / Amit Bandre

Suppose you did something nice for me and I then went on to do it for someone else — would that signal the end of my kindness debt? It’s a catchy idea, like an ad campaign, but frankly, it would only really impact the world big time if kindness was a virus, frankly. This method puts kindness outside us, locates it in one act rather than a continuing approach.

To be sure, it’s hard to think about this in these highly instrumental times, where we are constantly reminded that if we are too soft, too nice or too kind, we are going to be taken for a ride. In fact, this is also not untrue and each of us can give a dozen examples of such behaviour. Why is it so? Because we don’t have a system of valuing people or the world except by numbers — how much, how many, how big. This constantly frames the world in a falsely simple way as a hierarchy of big and small numbers, and making a discussion about ideas, concepts and emotions irrelavant.

This is why our role models now, are often numerically successful — for example Chetan Bhagat. Consistent with that value system, they also find it simpler to take unambiguous positions on issues like the current Israeli bombings in Gaza — like India should stand with Israel. When countered with questions about justice, cruelty, unknown chemical weapons used on children, Israel’s unwillingness to cease fire for even three hours so dead bodies can be cleared, such people usually respond with the language of realpolitik — which is only another version of if you are too much of a softie, you will be taken for a ride. It is the same with issues of laid off workers and unjust displacements for development projects.

They say that this is the nature of humanity — but so is kindness and goodness. So why privilege one part of our nature over another? We must ask if we can really survive without creating genuine felt communities — for which we need to affirm some human values. Otherwise, we exist only in a shifting ground of comparative power and opportunistic defections which creates insecurity and violence.

Those who endorse the very structures — corporate, organisational, state or social — that perpetuate unkindness, are also most likely to declare how sentimental tales of the human spirit gave them moist eyes and goose bumps, to praise Vipassana, and of course share pictograms of kind-hearted sayings from philosophers and poets.

It is as if they have outsourced kindness so that it can come cheaper. We cannot go much longer without ways that change how we do business, run countries and live our lives, that recognise that kindness is a strength and a necessary tool for survival.

Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevi.com.

The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.

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