This is the story of my 15 year long tussle with a lesson in compassion and how I finally overcome mental resistance to practice it…
Scene 1: Some time in 1998, Mangalore, South India
When the blind man with a wad of lottery tickets in his hand entered the bus I feigned disinterest and looked away purposefully like I always do when coming face to face with anyone who looked remotely like an alms seeker. This one was no beggar but the combined effect of his blindness, shabby shirt, and the wad of lottery tickets in his hand was enough to put me off.
From the ease of his movement within the bus, I could make out that this was a daily exercise for him. He would lean gently at the very edge of the seat’s headrest, making sure not to inconvenience the passenger and balance himself before offering his wares. Once the result was known he would inch the lower half of his body away from the seat and move forward to repeat the exercise. Each time the clipper board with the 6 or 7 remaining tickets were thrust in front of me I didn’t have to even think before doing what I did — turn my face away.I had enough problems in my mind, or so I thought.
It was nearly dusk when the bus finally wriggled itself out of the chaotic urban traffic and soon we were passing through a smattering of small villages and towns that were getting smaller and smaller with the passage of time. It was at one of those nondescript towns that a man, probably a local small time grocer boarded the bus.
Soon enough, the lottery seller commenced his routine. I stole a sly glance at him while he moved away from me for what seemed to me like the umpteenth time. Something struck to me as very strange: as far as I could make out the man hadn’t sold a single ticket during the trip until then but there was a strange peace on his countenance — did I even notice a contended smile? I don’t know. And here I was, almost squealing in my seat thinking of the backlog (largely imaginary) at work.
A few minutes later something even stranger happened — the lottery seller and the ‘grocer’ started what appeared to be an engaging conversation.
They were smiling often and more than once I noticed the grocer placing the palm of his right hand on the other man’s shoulders, as if they were long-lost friends. I couldn’t hear what they were discussing, the loud laughter of two women sitting in the seat behind me and the shrill noise from the bus engine shielded my ears from the duo’s conversation. The lack of ‘audio’ not withstanding, by then I was totally tuned in -it was as if I was on an assignment.
What happened next has stayed with me ever since, inspiring me and shaming me at the same time:
The grocer pulled out out two hundred rupee notes from his worn out wallet and gave it to the lottery seller. In return, he accepted ALL the remaining tickets. Tears started welling up in the lottery seller’s eyes and in few moments he was crying with the abandon of a child — perhaps giving vent to the despair of hand to mouth daily existence that he had successfully shielded away from the world’s gaze with dignity. Momentarily, tears gave way to laughter!. Now there was a curious sight, the likes of which I had thought happens only in books and movies — tears of joy and relief mixing unabashedly with laughter.
I felt uncomfortable and squirmed in the seat. Something didn’t feel right — It felt as if I was sitting on a piece of hard rock. I tried to make myself comfortable by shifting in the seat but with disappointing results. After several furtive attempts, I found out the source of my discomfort — it was my bulging purse, the Hidesign leather wallet squeezed in to the back pocket of my tailored trouser. I pulled it out and reflexively opened it to check it’s contents for the source of discomfort. In a rare moment of clarity I realized that there were more 100 Rupee notes in my wallet than the number of lottery tickets that the man had gently tried to sell to me. I bent my head in shame and disappointment.
I had the perfect opportunity to make a difference to a man’s day and I let it go — not just once or twice, but several times within 3 hours.
I learned my lesson that day:
“Of all the acts of kindness you can do, there is none more powerful and joyous than those of random variety.Because they are performed largely impulsively, random acts of kindness are devoid of particular motive or expectations – self-less karma at it’s best. And unlike the deliberate variety of it, the size of the donation has no bearing on the amount of joy and satisfaction that one might receive from giving or receiving random kindness.”
I learned my lesson that day but like most of what I have learned in my life put it away to a corner of my mind, preferring to add it to the horde of ‘life lessons’ and ‘inspirational tales’ that come my way. It took me 15 years and life in a rich country with no beggars jostling for alms to convert what I learned during that bus ride in to practice.
Scene 2: Early 2013, outside Jackson Square Mall
The Man with an Accordion
There are two distinct images of the man that has managed to stay afresh during the three years since I saw him first.The first one is from an icy February morning. In that, his cheeks are nearly blood-red in color . In the second, he is standing at his usual place outside the mall on an unusually warm July day , his shirt drenched in sweat and cheeks a strange shade of pinkish brown.
Jackson square mall is a favorite meeting place for the seniors living in and around the downtown core. Jolly old men and women in scooters or walkers coming together for a game of cards in the food court, a game of chess inside the public library conveniently nested inside the mall building or for a coffee and a chat outside, weather permitting, is a common sight at Jackson. Our man too turns up at Jackson, every day. He doesn’t come there to relax and enjoy ‘the golden years’. Nor is he a beggar or one of those downtown junkies asking for a dollar ‘just to buy a bus ticket’. He is a musician.
Every afternoon he stands near the mall’s main entrance, carefully out-of-the-way of people going in and out, an accordion in his arms, playing something or the other, his music hardly audible above the din. Every time I see him I have felt a compelling urge to walk towards him, listen to his music for a moment, nod in appreciation and drop some coins in to his box and then walk away with a smile, but never did so.
Cognitive dissonance: To give or not to?
It is easy for me make a well thought about online donation of 100 dollars than to give few cents to someone in front of me who is clearly in need in front of me . When faced with people in distress seeking assistance, my mind goes in to over drive — my deeply ingrained distrust of alms seekers on one side and the urge to recognize and help genuinely helpless folks fighting out against each other. I vacillate between ‘not falling for a con man or a drug addict’ and helping someone in need; my heart pounding wildly, sweat on my palm and a tight squeeze in the middle of my chest.
In the rare instance when I manage to tame the mind and eliminate the dissonance, my ego mounts a surprise attack drawing from my inherent social anxiety,contriving to drive my feet away from the needy and turning my gaze to the other side.
Scene 3: September 11, 2013: the Final Breakthrough!
Returning home from my morning walk something inside me instructed me to take the long route back — through the busy main street in front of the mall. And there he was, the old man with the accordion, playing some piece I could hardly hear.All I could feel from that moment on wards was my genuine desire to do something for the man. It was all so easy from then on. I took few deep breaths, told myself not to think of the world around me, not even about myself. I walked straight towards him. As I got closer I could make out what was he playing :‘The Boy in the Bubble’ , Paul Simon.
“These are the days of miracle and wonder And don’t cry baby, don’t cry Don’t cry…………..”
I dropped a 2 dollar coin in to his box and walked away, with a smile on my lips and a spring on my steps, not looking back. I have crossed the bridge, I am happy about it and will do it again.
PS: It’s been more than a month since I have seen the man. Everyday when I alight from the bus right across the mall on my way back home from work my eyes search for him. Many a moment I worry whether he is alright .May be that was my last window of opportunity to start practicing what I believed was the right thing to do — again a reminder of the power of random acts.
Arun Keepanasseril is Dentist-researcher, Project Manager, wannabe writer, adrenaline junkie,sometime musician and alltime dreamer. Follow Arun on his Twitter Feed.