Last year my brother got married. First in Kerala and then in Patiala, where his lovely wife is from. Not ones to miss out on this chance, the Mallu bunch, ably accompanied by a Norwegian, German or two, decided to make a Punjab trip of it – Amritsar, Waga border and then Patiala.
On a balmy April night, we were waiting at Nizamuddin railway station for our train to Amritsar. We grabbed some snacks, chatted, people-watched and waited patiently. There are few places on this planet that lend themselves to awesome people-watching like Indian railway stations. Soon enough, a beggar came along. A beggar with severely deformed legs, ankles and arms who partly crawled and rolled his way across the platform. He rolled around our bags and beseeched us. We politely declined.
Arvind went completely still. The shock of seeing someone in such a misfortunate state so up close and personal had gotten to him. I had never seen him look so appalled, so horrified.
“Pappa,” he anxiously pulled at the Viking’s T-shirt. “Do something. Give him something. Do something.”
Giving him money will not help darling, we explain patiently. We try and explain in a way that is not too Slumdog Millionaire, not too awful.
The man rolls away.
Our son turns to us, tearful and furious and begins to hammer us with his little fists.
You did NOTHING! YOU LET HIM GO. YOU DID NOT HELP HIM.
It is possible that I don’t have the talent to adequately express the terrible heartache of that moment. His judgement back to back with my cold judgement of self.
The train came along and we climbed in; he curled himself up on his berth and sobbed even as I rubbed his back and whispered comfort.
The important background to this story is Arvind’s own deformity, his left arm, and how it was around that this time that he truly became aware of his difference. Of things that he either could not do or struggled to do. Of the way his arm would drag ever so slightly when he ran. Of his heartbreak over not being able to do his self-defence classes properly. Of struggling to tie his shoelaces. We had seen a lot of frustration and anger, yet somehow, the grief had yet to find its vent.
On the train that night, my son’s long pent up grief juxtaposed seamlessly with his grief for the plight of a complete stranger.
I hesitated with my words knowing well the deviousness of guilt. How easily it sneaks in and stays there. Yet at the same time, how do children or young adults develop empathy and compassion if they are never acknowledge how fortunate they are? And is acknowledging our good fortune possible without some guilt?
I struggled. To find the words that would make him aware of his good fortune. We are blessed in so many ways that we cannot take for granted.
Arvind, in particular, is a remarkably blessed child. From the minute everything went to hell, we have never once seen a hospital bill. The severity of his injury was such that there were simply no neurosurgeons in Norway who could surgically deal with this. My father scoured google and mailed doctors the world over and finally found an Indian surgeon in Texas and a Swedish surgeon in London, who were familiar with the procedure. Our entire family was flown to London, all expenses paid by the Norwegian government, so that Arvind could be operated upon by one of the best surgeons in the world at the Princess Grace Hospital – the kind of hospital which offers patients five course gourmet menus for the likes of British royalty and Victoria Beckham. If we had lived in the U.S. the collective cost of his two cutting edge surgeries would have amounted to about $250,000. (The kind of people who knock public healthcare could do with keeping these kind of figures in mind.)
There is no way to receive a blessing like that and not feel an obligation to pay it back or pay it forward.
Since that day in Delhi, we have talked a lot about poverty and injustice. How unfairly the cards of life are dealt and how there is no real explanation for that. To everyone who sympathetically clucked, “Why this lovely boy?” we have consistently answered, “Why not? Why were we, in particular, to be spared in this entirely random game?” We have talked a lot about the things we can do to help. About spending some vacations travelling with mission groups to build homes and schools in communities. About volunteering more locally, getting involved in our own community. About speaking out when see injustice – even if it is schoolyard bullying.
Most of all, I have told him as much as I could about Raksha – a wonderful school for children with special needs that was started in Kochi by my late Grand uncle and his wife. It is difficult to come across finer people and for me they are the ultimate example of how to walk the talk. And keep walking for 26 years. It is an institution that I am happy to brag about for all the fantastic work it has done and continues to do. This couple were not only a constant source of inspiration, but stand-in parents and guides with an open home and heart for so many confused souls, like me. I can safely say that my life, in its present form, would be impossible without their nurturing guidance back then. (Yes, we need another post about that village needed to raise a child).
We sponsor a child there, but Arvind has decided that he would like to sponsor a child himself. Someone whom he can visit and follow up on his trips to India. He wants to share his physiotherapy equipment and show his exercises. He wants to help, because his 8 year old mind has reluctantly comprehended that there was little we could have done to help the poor man at the railway station. Because he comprehends somewhat that knowledge, experience and stamina are important resources to share as well.
It’s time to pay it forward.