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How to save ourselves from the poor

india Updated: Jun 14, 2008 00:12 IST

The contrast between the palaces of New Delhi and the miserable hovels of the poor, labouring class cannot last one day in a free India in which the poor will enjoy the same power as the richest in the land. A violent and bloody revolution is a certainty one day unless there is a voluntary…sharing for the common good.” Not my words or Comrade Karat’s speechwriter’s. That was our Bapu aka Mr MK Gandhi, back then when Independence was just a gleam in his eye. And it’s happening like he said, is it not? Civil war in several Indian states. Helpers drugging or killing their employers of years to steal a few lousy ‘valuables’, people getting stabbed for a hundred rupees. Apart from blaming the sarkar for everything, what can we do individually, besides daan, shram or otherwise, to cool the burning gaze of the poor before it scorches us to cinders?

The first, most obvious thing is: let’s be tactful, let’s not flaunt our wealth. We have a right to the fruit of our hard work and opportunities. But we are so very well-to-do in a country where millions are dirt poor and never had the opportunities to work hard like us for a better life. We have to be careful or we’re inviting trouble. So let’s not discuss the cost of anything before our home help. Let’s remove and destroy price tags before they can see them. When we take them to the mall, let’s not use them like coolies while we casually spend Rs 500 on ten little pieces of handmade chocolate.

Let’s make a point of feeding the helpers first at children’s birthday parties which always seem to happen at pizzerias, preceded by a magic show (I know now of little girls and boys who are hardened veterans of magic shows and tell the hapless conjuror what to do). The grace and punya of feeding the ‘servants’ first is beyond computation as many of us realise already.

At the end of the day, no matter how much we earn, which luxury holiday we’ve been on or what we eat, drink and wear, the true test of class is how we speak to our social ‘inferiors’. Classy families, even if they are in reduced circumstances, always speak more politely to their ‘servants’ than to their own relatives. It’s an unfailing test of class anywhere in the world, in any society. A Hadith (traditions of the Prophet of Islam) recorded by Abu Dawud reports Anas, the Prophet’s personal attendant for ten years, as saying, “I was a young boy when I started working as his attendant. At times I did not properly follow his instructions. However, during all these ten years, he never rebuked me. Nor did he ever berate me for any of my acts of omission and commission.”

About the vast and terrible gulf between rich and poor, Bapu wrote in Young India, on March 17, 1927 (eightyone years ago!), “My ideal is equal distribution, but so far as I can see, it is not to be realised. I therefore work for equitable distribution.” He did not want to take away forcibly from the rich to give to the poor nor did he moralise about the right of the rich to be rich. Rather, he worried that money usually led to moral irresponsibility, that people felt they could buy their way out of accountability.

So Bapu came up with self-restraint as a personal habit that all could practice, for both individual and common good. We don’t have to take it to his extremes, but surely we can ‘be mindful’ before diabetes or heart, liver and kidney enforce restraint on us or some poor person clobbers us to death?

Small stuff, like not buying everything that catches our eye, like valuing home food more, like praising and pampering our helpers, not being afraid of them but earning their good feelings and therefore our own well-being?

Bapu really had it worked out (he is nine feet tall for me). I mean, read this: “Now let us consider how equal distribution can be brought about through non-violence. The first step towards it is for him who has made this ideal part of his being, to bring about the necessary changes in his personal life. He would reduce his wants to a minimum, bearing in mind the poverty of India. His earnings would be free of dishonesty. The desire for speculation would be renounced (okay, reduced). His habitation would be in keeping with his new mode of life. There would be self-restraint exercised in every sphere.”

If more scriptural affirmation is needed for toning down and refraining from dikhava, do let’s consider Sudama, who was rewarded most magnificently by Sri Krishna. The literal meaning of su-dama is ‘good (beneficial) restraint’!