Food queues; the new normal: People line up for food in Delhi during the lockdown.(Amal KS/HT PHOTO)
Food queues; the new normal: People line up for food in Delhi during the lockdown.(Amal KS/HT PHOTO)

Lockdown Diaries: The calculations of giving by Tanuj Solanki

In a country teeming with have-nots, conscientious haves are bound to be in perpetual moral trouble
Hindustan Times | By Tanuj Solanki
PUBLISHED ON APR 25, 2020 04:45 PM IST

One morning during the second week of the lockdown, the garbage collector of our street in Gurugram had a short conversation with me right after taking my garbage bag and hurling it into the cart attached to his rickshaw. “Rashan khatam ho gaya, kuch de dijiye,” (My rations are over, please give me something) he said without making eye contact.

Unthinkingly — or, nearly unthinkingly — I asked him if I could give him the provisions the next morning. To that, he nodded slowly for a few seconds, then reminded me that the next day was a Sunday, an off day for him. Again unthinkingly, I declared that I would give the rations to him on Monday. Hearing this, he turned one-eighty towards the cart and needlessly shifted a couple of garbage bags inside. “Chalega” (that works), I heard him say. It was as if he had dismissed me, or as if he had regretted that he had asked for something.

Five minutes later, inside my apartment, understanding came crashing upon me and left me deep in guilt. A man had asked me for food, and I had deferred the giving of it by two days. I had assumed that his request wasn’t urgent.

Rs 280.39 (Kindle edition); Pan Macmillan
Rs 280.39 (Kindle edition); Pan Macmillan

What was I thinking?

Had I at that moment calculated what I’d have to do to immediately give the man what he wanted? There’d have been some effort involved. I’d have had to climb up two floors to where I lived, I’d have had to think of the things to give him, I’d have had to put them in bags, and I’d have had to come down and hand them over to him. Had I thought of all this as too much to do? Had I been lazy? Had I just allowed my laziness to let someone be hungry?

I couldn’t arrive at clear answers to these questions. It is possible that I had made some calculations subconsciously. But if they were subconscious, should I really beat myself up about them?

Perhaps there wasn’t a need to analyze the incident to that degree. Perhaps the simple truth was that I wasn’t ready for such a request. But surely not being ready couldn’t be a defense for how I had reacted to the request. The question really was—what shall it take for someone like me to be ready? Wasn’t I aware of experts saying that a hunger crisis was looming? Didn’t I know that some of them had felt compelled to use the word ‘food riots’? Didn’t I know of desperation people walking hundreds of kilometres to reach home? So how was it, then, that I, a member of the mollycoddled middle class, could claim being not ready in the face of a simple request for food.

I shared the incident with Nikita, my wife. “Why didn’t you come up at once?” she asked me. I obviously had no answer, though the immediacy and expression with which she posed the question once again told me that she was a far better person than I was and that I was lucky to be with her. “Can you please prepare a bag for Monday?” I asked her with a sigh.

The bag was prepared. The weekend progressed. Working from home had added an intensity to the week gone by and the weekend had come as a relief, although it was clear that getting used to weekends that had to be spent cooped up inside the house would not be easy. I thought of the garbage collector many times. I wondered why I did not know his name, why I’d never cared to know his name. He didn’t know my name either, but that wasn’t the same thing, was it? I thought about the fact that he was working, he was in employment, he must be getting paid, and what that meant apropos his request. It was possible that the places that he got his food from had run out of provisions for one reason or another. It was just as possible that he was asking for supplies on someone else’s behalf. Someone else whom he knew to be suffering. It also entered my mind that he must have made the same request of several people during his shift and that not everyone must have been as mindless as I’d been. The last thought comforted me: even if the man’s request had been urgent, he must have found at least one person to give him enough to last till Monday.

Author Tanuj Solanki (Courtesy PanMacmillan)
Author Tanuj Solanki (Courtesy PanMacmillan)

But what was this comfort worth, I also thought, in a country where poverty and hunger and homelessness is the norm and yet national addresses ask people to storm the balconies to raise a din? Which balconies, whose balconies? I’d felt superior while refusing to participate in thaali-banging madness. And now, only a few days later, I’d misjudged a call for help. In a country teeming with have-nots, conscientious haves are perhaps bound to be in perpetual moral trouble — why do I have what I have? when and how do I share it? how do I live with the knowledge that I have wants if not needs, that I won’t share all?

Monday arrived. I gave the man the ration bag Nikita had prepared. He took it with a grunt and then looked inside. Two kinds of daal, rice, flour, tea, and some condiments. He looked up to meet my eyes for the briefest of moments. That was all he could give in the way of thank you, I guess. Neither of us smiled at any point during the handover. I turned around and went inside. My work-from-home day was about to begin.

While handing over the ration bag, it had occurred to me to ask his name. Eventually, I didn’t. I’d never cared for his name earlier, so the notion of caring for it on the day that I give him something felt phony.

Tanuj Solanki is the author of the novel The Machine is Learning.

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