Only real concern for others can remove inequality

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Rehman, a barely literate cycle-rickshaw driver in a small city in India, decided to take Salim, his 12 years old son, on a visit to the Dargah (a Sufi Islamic shrine built over a saint’s grave) of a highly revered saint on that saint’s Urs (death anniversary). The Dargah was in a big city about 1,500 kilometres away, but there was a convenient train connection. Rehman’s neighbour, who had visited the Dargah a few years earlier, informed Rehman that they could stay at Suleiman Dormitory near the railway station, a few kilometres away from the Dargah.

Asha, the daughter of Prof. Rao, an internationally renowned social scientist, lived in the same big city where the Dargah was located. After completing her Ph.D. from the University, she was now an Economics lecturer. Her husband, Gopal, an electronics engineer with a Ph.D. from a prestigious US university, had returned to India after teaching in USA for a few years, and was an Associate Professor at the prestigious engineering institute in the city.

Prof. Rao’s family had been Rehman’s customers from the time Asha had entered kindergarten. Apart from ferrying Asha from home to school and back, Rehman was a kind of ‘Man Friday’ to Prof. Rao and his wife. They trusted him completely, and he was fiercely loyal to the couple and their daughter.

After booking the train tickets, Rehman telephoned Asha. “Asha, I’m Rehman speaking. Salim and I will be in your city from the 13th evening to the 16th morning to visit the Dargah. We would like to meet you and Gopal for a few minutes on the 14th or 15th evening to give you your favourite mithai (sweets) from Ganesh Mithai Shop. Which day, and what time, would be convenient?”

Asha replied, “Rehman, unless you have compelling reasons to stay elsewhere, you must stay at our house. It’s only about 5 kilometres from the Dargah, and there are frequent buses both ways. Unfortunately, 14th and 15th are both working days for Gopal and me, otherwise we would have come along with you.”

Rehman quickly replied, “Asha, we will stay at Suleiman Dormitory near the railway station. We will meet you on the 14th evening or the 15th evening, whichever is convenient to you and Gopal.”

“Rehman, you must stay with us. If you stay anywhere else, please do not even bother to meet us,” Asha said. The finality in her tone was unmistakeable!

Rehman and Salim stayed at Asha’s and Gopal’s house from the evening of the 13th to the morning of the 16th. They were treated like any other guest. That is, they slept in the guest bedroom, had their meals along with Asha and Gopal, and had access to the main door keys so that they could leave the house and return according to their convenience. In short, the upper middle class, English-speaking, highly educated professors had treated the poor, non-English-speaking, almost illiterate cycle-rickshaw driver as their equal!

Most of us fight against those forms of inequality only when they are at a disadvantage. We do not seem to be bothered about those forms of inequality where we have the upper hand.

For example, men belonging to ‘lower caste’ families may fight against caste inequality, but may condone or perhaps practise gender discrimination against the women in their families.

Or women belonging to ‘upper caste’ families may fight against gender inequality, but may condone or perhaps practise caste discrimination against other women and men.

Do we all genuinely try to behave and speak respectfully with people who are economically weaker than us, such as domestic help, watchman, liftman, driver, etc.?

Don’t many of us look down on people whose knowledge of English is not as good as ours, and admire people whose knowledge of English is better than ours?

Why can’t those of us who fight against those forms of inequality where we are at a disadvantage, also fight against all those forms of discrimination where we have the upper hand?

Why can’t we all try to be like Asha and Gopal?

I had sent the draft of this post to Asha and Gopal for their approval. They replied as follows:

“We are really touched that you remembered this story and consider it worthy of Blog Action Day 2014. Just one comment:
By ‘being at a disadvantage’, what you mean is ‘being the affected party’ and by ‘having an upper hand’, what you mean is being in a superior or more powerful position, but it is this ‘at a disadvantage – upper-hand’ frame which is itself the issue. Within this frame, one can never grow out of this attitude except to be politically correct or to feel good. It is only a relation of friendship, trust and real concern for the other that makes any relationship mutual and therefore equal. To this extent, Rehman has always overwhelmed us and we feel that we cannot measure up to his graciousness and generosity.
The traditional example of an equal relationship is the friendship between Sudama and Krishna, where friendship is all that matters and, even in need, Sudama does not expect anything!”

Relationships: a truly heart-warming incident

I am re-posting, with a few changes, The cup of coffee, which was originally posted on July 30, 2013.

“He’s a Maharashtrian,” said the Maharashtrian.

“No, he’s Saraswat,” said the Saraswat.

“Boss, forget all that! He’s a Mumbaikar,” said the Tamil-speaking Mumbaikar.

“Don’t forget his wife is Gujju,” said the Gujarati.

To add fuel to the fire, I added, “What about the fact that his mother-in-law is British?”

A few of us were discussing Sachin Tendulkar’s 100th International Hundred. All were in ‘Apnaa aadmi’ mode, each person trying to claim Sachin as his own man! All in good humour, of course.

This set me thinking. How many people would have claimed, in good humour or otherwise, the same Sachin Tendulkar as their own man when he was just another cricket-playing youngster? Everybody loves to be associated with rich, successful, well-connected persons, but how many people reach out to a struggler or a nobody?

I remember my own experience when I moved alone to a new city on a transfer over 25 years back. I had never visited that city earlier. I did not have any relatives or friends there. Since I worked in a capital equipment sales and service company, I met a large number of people in the course of my work, developed good personal rapport with many of them, but unwritten company policy was professional relationships remained professional unless there was a prior personal connection. I did meet a few persons with whom there was some earlier connection (same community, same ‘home city’, friend’s friend, etc.), but nobody seemed enthusiastic about reaching out to a 20-something newcomer to their city, and I didn’t want to impose. My neighbours were helpful, but not exactly friendly.

One day, a few months after I had shifted to this city, I met my customer, the General Manager – Projects of a leading automotive ancillary at the airport. I was on my way to Mumbai, while he was flying to Delhi. There was another gentleman with him, whom he introduced as his Executive Director. When I handed my Business Card to the ED (let’s call him Mr. K), he immediately broke into a huge smile and said, “Hey, your family name is the same as mine!” He asked about my family tree and looked disappointed when he realised that we were not related. By then, their flight was ready for boarding. He gave me his Business Card and told me to drop in at his residence whenever convenient. He also told me to meet him whenever I visited their Company so that we could “chat over a cup of coffee”.

I had to meet the GM-P the next week. After completing our discussion, I went to Mr. K’s office, handed my Business Card to Mr. K’s secretary and asked to meet Mr. K. The secretary asked if I had an appointment. When I replied in the negative, he asked me what I wanted to discuss with Mr. K. I replied, “I just want to say Hello to him. It’s just a courtesy call.” Now, Mr. K was the Big Boss in that Company. Can you imagine anybody walking into the Prime Minister’s office and asking to meet Narendra Modi “just to say Hello”? The secretary was perplexed! I could almost hear him thinking, “Is this guy mad?” But, he had seen my family name was the same as Mr. K’s. He picked up the intercom, dialled a number, and spoke, “Sir, one Mr. K from XYZ Ltd. wants to meet you. He said it’s a courtesy call.” Within a few seconds, Mr. K walked out from his room, shook my hand, and said, “I’m sorry I’m in a meeting. Is this only a courtesy call, or is there anything specific you had to discuss?” When I said it was only a courtesy call, he replied, “My meeting will go on for some time. So there’s no point in your waiting. I’m sorry I can’t spend time with you now. But please do meet me the next time you come here.”

Two weeks later, I visited that Company again to meet the GM-P. Again, after completing our discussion, I went to Mr. K’s office and asked Mr. K’s secretary if I could meet Mr. K, just a courtesy call. The secretary spoke to Mr. K on the intercom, then asked me to enter Mr. K’s room. Mr. K was in a meeting with 3 other persons. He requested them to wait outside for a few minutes and chatted with me for about 10 minutes over a cup of coffee.

I was touched by Mr. K’s gesture! I was a young person in the early stages of my career, while he was a very highly-placed person who had absolutely nothing to gain by being nice to me.

That cup of coffee was the beginning of a long friendship between Mr. K’s family and mine.

Today is Mr. K’s 81st birthday.

Happy Birthday, Mr. K! May you have many more!!
Thank you for that cup of coffee.
It really meant a lot to me.

Genuine relationships or fairweather relationships?


This poster, sent by a friend, set me thinking.

Do we treat everybody with about the same amount of respect and consideration?

Or do we give immense amounts of respect and consideration to people only if they are wealthier and/or more powerful and/or better connected than us, and little or no respect and consideration to people if we are wealthier and/or more powerful and/or better connected than them and we are definitely unlikely to need their help in any way in the foreseeable future?
Worse, do we maintain relationships with people only when they are wealthier and/or more powerful and/or better connected than us, and end those relationships when we become wealthier and/or more powerful and/or better connected than them and we are definitely unlikely to need their help in any way in the foreseeable future?

Do we have genuine relationships? Or do we have fairweather relationships?