A customer and I had just completed a long discussion in his factory. Since it was our first meeting, he insisted that he would treat me to lunch. As we were walking towards his car, the talk turned to the building collapse in Thane in which over 70 persons died, and the reports of a nexus between builders, officials, police and politicians.
Very passionately, my customer said, “These scoundrels should be hanged! They know these buildings will collapse and kill the occupants, but all they are interested in is making money! If a person can be hanged for killing one victim, why shouldn’t these guys be hanged for killing dozens of people?”
“Who, in your opinion, is most guilty?” I asked.
Without any hesitation, my customer replied, “The builders, of course! They increase their profits by making concrete with more sand and less cement. They know it’s dangerous, but why will they bother? Their lives are not at stake. Only the people who buy their flats risk their lives. These builders are mass-murderers!”
To change the subject, I said, “Let’s not talk about them. Tell me, what kind of food are you treating me to today?”
He laughed and replied, “Sir, I am not a sophisticated person like you. I am a pure vegetarian, teetotaller and non-smoker. So, please forgive this simpleton for making you suffer an ordinary vegetarian meal without any drinks or hookah. Is a Rajasthani Thali OK for you? Or would you prefer something else?”
“Rajasthani Thali would be great! Have you never tried non-vegetarian food, alcohol or tobacco, even when you were young?” I asked.
Clearly enjoying the attention, he replied, “Never! Sir, these are our family values. We are very principled people. Apart from our simple lifestyle, we have a tradition of contributing at least 10% of our profits to charity. We are very grateful to God for his kindness, and we try to do something for society. We are not like these useless builders who only want to make money, even if it means their sub-standard construction leads to so many deaths!”
Again wanting to change the subject, I asked, “I remember you told me that you were the first person in your family to venture into the engineering industry. So, what business has your family been in before that?”
“We are in the chewing tobacco industry,” he declared, and proudly told me the name of the brand owned by his family.
This guy had been ranting about “useless builders who only want to make money”, and had labelled them as “mass-murderers”! But he had no qualms about enjoying the profits made by his family by selling carcinogenic chewing tobacco, which also leads to a large number of deaths. On the contrary, he was claiming to be virtuous on account of contributing 10% of these profits to charity!
A classic case of the pot calling the kettle black!
I wanted to ask him many questions, but I thought it would be an exercise in futility. Hence, I did not react.
Later, I wondered: Did I do the right thing by keeping quiet? Would it really have been an exercise in futility? Or did I keep quiet only to avoid antagonising my customer?
Whatever the real reason for my keeping quiet that day, I think I should have spoken up. If not anything, I would have poked his self-righteousness!
I am reminded of these words of Martin Luther King, Jr.:
“The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.”
(This post was originally published on Dec 17, 2013.)