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To help, or not to help, that is the question

This happened to me in Mumbai about 8 years ago in 2005…I was travelling to the suburb of Bandra in an auto rickshaw. At a traffic signal in Dharavi, about 10 minutes away from Bandra, a boy around 13 or 14 years old dressed in shorts and t-shirt peeked in. “Could you please give me a lift till Bandra?” He spoke in fluent English.

Beggars and eunuchs are chief irritants at some of Mumbai’s traffic signal posts, pestering travellers waiting in cars, autos, etc. My first thought was that the boy could be a drug addict or part of a gang indulging in anti-social activities. By giving him a lift I would be running the risk of inviting possible harm to me. But if he was really in need of help, by branding him as some kind of a criminal I was doing myself greater harm. I looked back at the pleading face. I trusted my instincts. Besides I was quite capable of taking care of myself.

“Get in,” I told him. On the way he told me his story…

His mother was a Catholic who had married outside the religion to a Hindu. His father’s untimely death a couple of months ago had left them with no source of income. He had a younger school-going brother. His mother’s health had weakened after his father’s death. The convent school where he studied in the secondary grade refused to let him continue with his studies unless the school fees were paid. His younger brother was availing of free education as he was in the primary grade. A few people were helping them with free essential groceries. The boy was worried about his mother’s health and his education. He wanted to complete his high school education. He had heard that the Christian associations helped their community people with financial aid. He had approached some of them in the nearby places and had also spoken with priests at some of the churches but they had expressed their inability to help them because his mother had married a Hindu. Since he lived in Sion and didn’t have any money, he had to travel to the places by asking for a lift. Walking around for hours every day had left him with tired legs.

I was deeply moved by the boy’s tragic story. I suggested him the names of a few well-known charitable associations that I could remember of, hoping that it might be of help to him. Still, I felt I had to do something about his zero cash on hand balance. I hadn’t carried much cash with me that day. After keeping aside the return auto rickshaw fare, I was left with just 70 rupees. After a short ride the boy told me he would get down at the next traffic signal. I pressed a 50-rupee note in his hand before he got down and with a warm smile, wished him “All the best and God Bless You.” There was a strange expression on his face, a mix of joy and disbelief, I think. I had given him something which he badly wanted without asking for it.

Now, compare the above incident with this one which happened almost five years later in 2009 when someone asked me for help which I readily offered only to get cheated in return. He was a celebrity chef from Pune city and was one of the judges of a very popular food show on a Marathi-language television channel. I had been very impressed with his cooking talent and had sent him a friend request on Facebook which he accepted. We chatted a bit on phone and met once during his visit to Mumbai.

After a month of knowing each other, he called me one day requesting for an urgent bank transfer of 10,000 rupees to his bank account as he had to purchase a large quantity of chicken for an event for which he was providing his catering services. I had only 6000 rupees with me that time and I foolishly transferred my 5500 rupees to his bank account which he had given me. Not once did the thought occur to me that he might cheat me and not pay back the amount. I didn’t remind him for the repayment thinking that he would pay up on his own. Seven months passed but still no word from him.

In July I visited the heavenly destination of Ladakh in the northern most part of India. I was very lucky on the day of my departure from that place. My flight from Leh to Mumbai was delayed due to unexpected heavy rains and the passengers were informed that if the weather did not improve within 2-3 hours, the flight would be postponed to the next day. Thankfully for me, the weather settled down and the flight took off because in the evening a most disastrous cloudburst ravaged the region, leaving thousands homeless and stranded. Hundreds were killed and the entire region was badly devastated. A few villages were completed wiped out. I was saddened by the tragedy and decided to make a donation to the relief fund created for the rehabilitation of the affected people. I contacted the celebrity chef and reminded him to repay my money. I gave him my bank account details so that he could make a bank transfer to my account. He said he was busy at the moment and would do it later. Most of the time, he wouldn’t take my calls. Days passed but still no word about repaying my loan. I smsed him my home address so that he could send me a cheque through courier. Still the same silence.

Eight months had passed since the day I had given him my money and it was September. One day I was visiting his city and we decided to meet in the afternoon before I returned back to Mumbai in the evening. The time and place was agreed upon but at the last moment while I was still waiting for him to turn up, he expressed his inability to meet as he was busy in a meeting. I could take it no more and stopped sending him reminders through sms too. It was a height of shamelessness! This guy actually prided himself on being a self-made man who hadn’t asked for financial help from his family in his struggling days. I felt really sorry for him. I deleted him from the list of my Facebook friends.

More than the loss of money, I was terribly hurt by his lack of respect for the trust that I had placed in him, the very trust on the basis of which I had helped him. It was easy for me to write off the amount and treat it as a bad debt but it was difficult to forget the breach of trust.

I still retain the counterfoil of the bank transfer made to his account to remind me of my stupidity and to serve as a lesson for the future. The same amount of money would have been of immense value to the boy from Sion. It would have helped him in completing his school education.

Lesson: It is foolish to trust a person just because he or she is a celebrity. An ordinary person may be more worthy and deserving of help and respect.