Thursday, 21 June 2012

The Art of Giving

Life is not fair. That's an obvious lesson life itself teaches you, although  interpretations of "fairness" tends to vary widely across the spectrum. 

For some, life tends to deal a particularly bad hand. In a poor country like India, you see them all the time, although most of us have developed the ability to "not see" in order to preserve our sanity and not be overwhelmed. But we can't escape the reality of the misery around us. This post is a plea to lend a helping hand to one such group of the unfortunate - the aged.

We talk a lot about Corporate Social Responsibility and the philanthropy demands on the rich.  But we rarely talk about Personal Social Responsibility and the philanthropy demands on the common man. This post is also meant to ask the reader to reflect on what each individual can do, however small.

In developing countries like India and China, the lot of the aged is particularly tough. There is no social security net - the net is the family. The family system was designed for the times when people did not live long. Families could cope with taking care of the aged for a while. Now while lifespans extend and families become smaller, this social system is straining at the seams. It is a particularly big problem in China because of the one child policy - four aged adults are dependent on one couple. In both these countries, it is all too common to see the aged on the street, begging. They have nowhere to go and in the sunset of their lives, when they ought to have some peace, they find none.

So the next time you see an aged person on the pavement, please don't turn away. Give him a dollar, or five rupees or one yuan. Whatever be your views on begging, please suspend them for an old lady who is on the streets. She is not begging there because that is an easy way out. She is there because she has no choice.

Doing good need not take on the contours of a gigantic project. Those who do it that way are indeed saints. But not all of us can do that. That's fine. It is equally noble just to reach out and give a little to a needy soul every day. The logical and rational questions as to whether that is the best way to help are academic. For that hungry lady in the blazing sun, its a manna from heaven. Lets leave it at that.

Perhaps this touches a chord in all of us. That's why the pictures and story of Jason, a young American outside a McDonalds in China chatting and sharing a burger and fries with a granny begging on the streets has gone viral and created such a storm.

We are privileged. God willing, we will never be on the streets. But we will join the ranks of the aged for sure, as Father Time is of course relentless. So here's a plea to help wipe a tear from our fellow brethren. Keep loose change in your pocket. And everytime you see an old person on the street, give her a coin. Its not a big deal for us. Its a huge deal for that unfortunate soul.

Pardon this blogger for a sanctimonious post. For you see, pontificating and pestering are attributes of the aged.


  1. Deja-vu...I have not only been thinking about this, but acting upon it as well. Last couple weeks, every day I have done a random act of kindness. People are so delighted, all the more coz its unexpected. Not all the recipients are aged, but each has his/her own need. Giving is so important, especially when we are so privileged (and lucky too).

  2. Honestly was planning to write about this, though not about the poor aged but the aged who need emotional support, who lack the support family system and reside alone or at retirement homes.

    Definitely will remember your words when i see the aged, thank you for this heartfelt post.

  3. Not anything sanctimonious at all, I think ...

    BTW, this post all the more makes me wonder if your political perspective can be summed up as "bleeding heart libertarianism" if you don't care for the "libertarian democrat" label .... in either case, I would think that our differences are minimal compared to the areas where we agree ...

    Right from my childhood days, and continuing even now, I have had a tough time figuring out how to react to such situations. In the US, I can tell myself that there is a vast social welfare system--private and public--to which I contribute, and therefore can look away.

    But, when in India, it is one tough challenge for me. The earliest challenge I remember as kid was eating chocolate-candy at a railway station and suddenly realizing that beggar-children were staring at me. If and when a beggar was entering through the gate at home, I preferred to hide away than to face up to that human. I would think that sissies like me find it extremely difficult in India.

    All these everyday issues of economic development were why I never found engineering meaningful, and I quickly ditched that. Academic inquiry into these matters don't help, as I found out later on--as one professor put it, it all comes down to where each and every one of us decides to draw the line between the personal and the sharing.

    As I wrote in one commentary in a professional site, my academic life seems to be this big struggle to constantly redraw the line between my preaching and my practice. It is one tough challenge. But, I welcome this challenge because it reminds me that I have not become desensitized to these issues. My discomfort in this is also a measure of how much it matters, right? After all, if it didn't matter, then I will be in the clear ...

    Oh well, as always, a rambling idiot I am :)

  4. u stole words frm my keyboard :D obviously better spoken..ithey view pointla i the having one draft..seekrama uploadaren..ilaati comment sectionlaye postidren :)

  5. u stole words frm my keyboard :D obviously better spoken..ithey view pointla i the having one draft..seekrama uploadaren..ilaati comment sectionlaye postidren :)

  6. I agree that when things are going well for us, we need to stop and look around us and make sure that we are doing what we can to help others who are not as fortunate. I have become increasingly aware of the needs of the older generation as I see my own parents and others of their generation grow older. I must admit that I have always been easily moved by children in trouble and am trying to make a more conscious effort to be more sympathetic to the older generation. The case of the poor old lady or man begging is sad and I agree that we need to suspend judgment and help out whenever we encounter it. Also, that group of the population is so easily forgotten that I think it is important to keep reminding ourselves about our responsibilities to them.

    But since you gave the old fogies here the license to pontificate, I am going to digress to a version of this problem that is closer to home. Probably many of us have family who have their basic needs taken care of but still feel isolated and emotionally weak. I have become more conscious of doing my bit to make them feel wanted. I try to call and chat with many of my older (grand-) aunts/uncles. Also, when I am in India, I make it a point to visit them and it seems to make them so happy. It seems like many times they just want to be heard and their opinions to be valued. But as I do this, I am also realizing one thing. There are some older people you want to spend time with and help – those that are positive and cheerful and warm no matter what. Then there are the others for whom it feels like an obligation to be fulfilled. And my personal lesson from all this is that as I grow older, I have a responsibility to myself to be in the first group and realize that even the older generation have a lot to give to the younger generation in terms of a positive attitude and emotional support. What I am trying to say is that the longer life span issue creates new challenges for both sides of the equation and I agree that the younger ones need to empathize more with the seniors but the seniors also need to do their best to not be too cranky and negative.

  7. @Shachi - More power to you. Such wisdom in somebody so young - very creditable.

    @Asha - Please do write about it. The more awareness that is created, the more the action

    @sriram - Allright. I shall now accept that I have a heart !!!!
    But seriously, you have highlights a profound truth , I believe. The constant struggle you refer to and the prevention of desensitisation is realy the value that keeps us human.

    @gils - Plizz to change draft to published status. know that you will have a unqiue angle in your inimitable style.

    @J - Oh; you've touched upon another mighty issue. This is especially a major issue in many middle class South Indian families as most of the children have gone far away geographically. In the locality where my parents live, the average age seems to be 60 plus. There isn't a children's park there is however a thatha patti poonga. Would welcome a full fledged post from you on this.

  8. A different perspective - especially for folks like me living in NZ. Countries like Oz-NZ, most of Europe have a strong security net for senior citizens, funded by tax paying younger lot like you and I. The trouble is when we get to retirement age in about 10-15 years now there are fewer younger people to fund our superannuation. I don't think this is an issue in the US given the constant churn and influx of younger, working age immigrants (Shriram may be able to provide the right perspective) But for the more closed, borderline xenophobic countries in Europe and Oceania, this is a ticking timebomb with an ageing population and an inverted pyramid. So far so good but sometimes the thought of having to work (out of compulsion, not choice) till well beyond 65 is scary. Our superannuation in NZ kicks in at 65. However over the next 12 years, the kick in age is progressively being raised by 2 months. The target is to get to superannuation age of 67 by 2024. Scary prospect of seeing grannys and grampas still struggling with excel and powerpoint or whatever else!
    And talking of ageing, many happy returns of yesterday and congratulations on turning 21.

  9. Sandhya Sriram22/6/12

    I learnt this from my husband, under his car seat, he will always have a cover full of nice biscuits like bourbon, little hearts (Not the parle G types), five star, gems and things like that. whenever at a signal he sees any children whether they are selling something or begging, he will give them these biscuits and chocolates. his funda is that even if they had 15 Rs, they wouldn't spend it buying a five star for their child. so instead of giving that 15 rs. why not give something that makes the kid smile.

    I was really carried away with this gesture. so then took a cue and started feeding beggars outside hotels. i would go in, buy some hot idli and sambar and come and give back to the beggar sitting outside the hotel.

    Once, i was walking into Vishranthi Hotel, in besant nagar, chennai to buy something, the beggar outside called out to me, he said, for the last few times, you have only bought me Idli, can you make it Dosa this time :-)

    there are small pleasures in small things and it is not philanthrophy according to me. it is a fulfilling moment by itself.

  10. Definitely not pontificating and sanctimonious at all. A gem i would say!
    Even the variety rice is good in Vishranthi :))

  11. @Kiwi - Huge huge issue in the developed world - none more critical than in Japan. There is definitely a case to be made for not living too long :(

    @Sandhya - So typical of you. You are truly special - and probably the "bleeding heart" that sriram refers to.

    @Zeno - Is there a single restaurant in Chennai that you do not know about ??????

  12. This comment has been removed by the author.

  13. I treat this post as a recall of my paati words who taught me to ensure atleast one needy person's food before i take my everyday food. she lived it through out her life, me tried to follow her words still i was in india but for last 2,3 years i lost that goodness in me and you now evoked it. thanks is not an enough word say for you.

  14. When I post comments here at Ramesh's blog, I choose to get by emails any comments that are made after ... Which means, every time @Sandhya posts anything, I am momentarily confused when I scan the email and there is another "Sriram" posting comments ... :)

    My father does something similar to what Sandhya writes about ... (my parents live in Chennai)  every once in a while, he gets a bunch of vadais from the cafe that is close to where they are, and gives one vadai each to those lined up outside the TTD temple ... BTW, Sandhya's comments reminded me of this experience, which I had blogged about ....

  15. @Sandhya : what a wonderful thing to do and that too often. It must have felt so good to be recognized by the beneficiary himself. I am truly inspired....

  16. @Venkat - Your patti's words of wisdom are more precious than gold.

    sriram - Many great people are named sriram :)

  17. Great words, Ramesh! honestly, it just needs common sense to do such stuffs... even if an average middle class spends half an day every week on philanthropic activity, the world will be a different place. great piece of advise, Ramesh! Really feel blessed to be here on this space!

  18. The art of giving has to come from the heart. It is so true that we need to give attention to the elderly and needy.
    My Dad does an interesting thing. He is part of the club in the area where he lives. They sponsor a free blood check for the 60+ to anyone who comes to the centre, on the last sunday of every month. There is a long queue usually which. He personally sits and collects the blood samples and there are others who help out to store and do the test etc. As they have to take the 'fasting sample' it is organised at 6.00 am. He is gonna turn 80 this year. But he makes it a point to wake up early on these days ( it is very difficult for him as he has asthma and Blore weather is not very favourable)and makes it to the place without fail.
    He has not missed this appointment for years now. This scheme was his idea and he finds lot of pleasure in helping out all the people who cannot afford this simple but necessary checkup.
    We have learnt a lot from him and this is one another lesson.

    I am thinking of opening a diagnostics centre which can offer free checks when I make up my mind to find the time...

    What you say is very true. The elderly have a lot of things that we should be sensitive to and take care of, be it in the family or outside. Great post.

  19. @Vishal - Every little helps. I am amazed at the personal stories Sandhya, Sriram and Hema have shared. Its amazing that noble souls do what they do.

    @Hema - Your father is an eminently admirable example to emulate. Please tell him that I am in awe of what he does.

  20. Sir, There are too many eating joints i am yet unaware of :( and there are other places i want to visit ASAP :))
    Vishranthi happens to be a place where i have my regular lunch at least once in a week :)

  21. I was shopping for onam clothes for the kids at a small store in Kerala when I saw an old & shabbily dressed woman pleading with the staff to reduce the price of an item. The staff were firm. My husband & I looked at eachother at the same time. I quickly went upto the cash counter paid the required money & walked out of the store quickly. The agile old lady caught up & thanked me profusely. I was so embarrased. She didn't let me go & told me tht the clothes I paid for was for her niece[onam gift] who was being treated at the Trivandrum cancer hospital............
    I went away feeling so insignificant & small. And there are a hundred reasons for this. Finally just did wht I always do....thanked God fervently for the Blessings tht he has showered on me.

    It is heart-rending to see the aged begging on the streets in India esp since we hardly see any in Dubai. I keep thinking why the people responsible for their state don't realise tht one day they too will become old.

    Sanctimonius post....where??? All I know is tht the mentioned incident touched you and u wanted to make a difference in your own way. And you have:-))

  22. @Reflections - So typical of you that you did that . One of the basic human defences when we see tragedy is the feeling "that it won't happen to me". That's why we drive like maniacs on the road. That's why we take health risks that are obvious with smoking or drugs. That's also why we believe that old age is somebody else's problem; not ours.

    Thanks for a lovely comment.


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