C Y Gopinath: A selfish kind of kindness
Are Mumbaikars really kind-hearted? Or do they just help their own? A look at the flip side of kindness
At Bangkok's benjasri park, you can see an odd sight on certain Sundays. A queue of some 50 or so Buddhist monks in saffron robes will be found standing facing an equally long line of city folk stretching in the opposite direction. In their hands the city folk hold what looks like a gift package. Each of them will hand this over to his corresponding monk, receive a blessing, and move off. The next gift bearer will then step forward to the next monk.
It's called "making merit". Think of it as toting up spiritual brownie points to improve your karma so that in your next incarnation you don't get born as a toad or a gecko. Thai people, I have noticed, are always finding quick and easy ways to make merit. Giving alms to a beggar, helping out a stranded tourist, feeding stray dogs and cats, all qualify. Even smiling back pleasantly to make someone feel good might count.
This benevolent attitude makes Thailand a lovely place to visit or live in. There's a reason why it's called the Land of Smiles. Live here long enough, though, and you'll realise that what looks like compassion has it's selfish side, since they're quietly making merit as well. But who cares, right? Kindness is kindness.
We could argue about this, but the way I see it, true kindness should not be based on an expectation of returns or else it's no better than true selfishness. How does Mumbai fare on the selfless-to-selfish scale? For example, what would happen in both these cities if someone fainted on the street?
AS AN EXPERIMENT, journalist Ayesha Kagal and I long ago did a social experiment at Churchgate, paying an obliging man called Amin to pretend to faint on the sidewalk. While hidden cameras zoomed in to capture the story, we mingled with the bystanders, eavesdropping. A crowd gathered soon and a vigorous debate started about what could be wrong with the fellow. If he was drunk, he should just be left to stew in his own juices, said one. Another proclaimed that he was probably having a quiet epileptic fit. A third said he knew the cure — rub the sole of a leather boot on the man's face. This happened.
Meanwhile, Amin had begun stirring to his feet, probably upset by the obnoxious boot. Someone asked him where he was from. When he said Mangalore, the story took a new turn. Three Mangaloreans in the crowd suddenly stepped up and took charge. He was one of their tribe. Others joined, and a Mangalorean mafia ring formed around Amin. The others melted away.
We concluded that perhaps some Mumbaikars become kind-hearted, but probably only with their own. In Bangkok, a fainted man will soon be surrounded by coins and notes, showered on him by people out to make some quick merit. The assumption would probably be that the faintee, so to speak, was working out some bad karma, and probably needed to be left where he was. You don't mess with fate. Similarly, a deaf or blind Thai child becomes a sort of merit machine: he will receive kindness and genuine care all his life, but his disability would be seen as a consequence of past karma, not a condition to be overcome.
WHICH BRINGS ME TO CROWS. I've always been moved by the sight of South Indian housewives leaving balls of cooked rice on ledges for crows to feed on. I'd cite it as an example of cultural compassion to lesser creatures. Till my father died. After the rites ended, I saw a ball of rice being left on a parapet by the river in Nashik. The priest explained that if a crow didn't show up soon to take the rice away, it would mean the dead soul probably had an unfulfilled wish.
Since it's no fun second guessing a departed soul, training crows to go straight for rice balls starts early in Matunga and south India. And there we go again — self-interest is the flip side of this kindness.
THERE IS ONE EXCEPTION: Indians feed others with a large heart and open hand, and most strikingly, without expectations. There was a shining instance of this during the calamitous 2006 floods, when thousands of cars stood motionless and stranded all night all over Mumbai in pelting rain. When the waters eased for a brief sunrise, a wondrous thing happened — householders began emerging from buildings all over Mumbai, carrying hot breakfast, tea and coffee to the weary folks in their cars.
The same spirit of selfless giving prevailed in Thailand during its floods of 2011, and after the tsunami in Japan. Almost as though when entire populations suffer together, kindness bubbles up more easily than with strangers on a street. Agree?
Here, viewed from there. C Y Gopinath, in Bangkok, throws unique light and shadows on Mumbai, the city that raised him. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org Send your feedback to email@example.com
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