Thoughts And Ideas
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Thoughts And Ideas

The Casual Cruelty of Urban India

100 Days, 100 Blogs, 100 Moments, 100 Lives (#1)

Yesterday morning, I was woken up by screaming of my neighborhood Aunty. The decibel levels matched the Arnab Goswami degree of outrage and one could be easily forgiven to believe that the lady in question was either practicing for her next news channel appearance, or at the very least had been robbed.

“Of course I have been robbed”, the woman seethed upon inquiry, “this man is fleecing us in broad day light. Bloody scoundrel. Scamsters, I tell you”

The scam in question was being pulled by our garbage collector, a gaunt man in his twenties who turns up on our doors every morning in a worn, holed t-shirt to take our garbage, sifting through it with his bare hands. Because gloves are not a luxury these scamsters are worth. He works in silence, making himself nearly invisible for the people who would be drowning in their own filth but for him. The only time he opens his mouth is when he asks for the money that we think is worth his labour.

How much you would ask?

Depending on the city you are in, it may vary from anywhere between 100 to 500 bucks. In any case, less than what a single medium sized pizza at your favorite chain would cost.

And the amount of money that my poor neighborhood aunty had lost to this horrible, evil man, because he had to sift through a couple of kilos of her extra garbage and he thought he deserved to be paid for it — 50 bucks.

Take a moment to let that sink in. Then take another moment to recount the number of times a version of this scene has played out before your very eyes. And then another to make a list of all the times when you were an active or passive participant in the said scenes.

Branding all beggars as addicts, child-beggars as drug-peddlers, taxi/auto drivers as looters, household helps as thieves and sloths, and all roadside vendors as patently dishonest — the urban India knows how to identify ‘the other’, the intruders who do not belong to its plush, developed future and is not shy of treating them as such.

To be fair, the assumptions are not entirely false. But they are not entirely true either. The problem is, the Urban India is much too impatient to make way for the in-between.

The ‘in-betweens’ who do not get to rant on Facebook when their customers are rude to them for no fault on their part, the ‘in-betweens’ who have to keep silent in the face of cringe worthy haggling and being branded as a cheat for asking for a price that could suitably compensate for their labour. The ‘in-betweens’ whose rudeness is a defense they have built over the years after dealing with repeated exploitative tendencies from their ‘supposed’ employers and customers. The ‘in-betweens’ who suffer because they belong to a strata that makes us, the Urban India uncomfortable. The ‘in-betweens’ who we prefer do their job the way my garbage collector does his — silently and invisibly.

Apathy is an insidious evil we have honed like a fine art. We have trained ourselves to avert our eyes when we see kids in tatters populating our crossroads; we have trained ourselves to believe that haggling with the roadside vendor for a meager ten rupees is our birthright because hell if a poor vendor can earn a single rupee more than the actual price; we have learned to deem people who work in our houses, on our roads, in our shops, malls and restaurants as nothing more than convenient fixtures who barely deserve our time or second glances or God forbid, any dignity.

Of course we sympathize with them, pity them even, sometimes, when the mood is right. Hell, my neighborhood aunty hands out generous bounty of 100 bucks as bakshis twice a year to our watchmen and domestic helps and believes she deserves some sort of an award for her generosity.

She is not the only one. In some form or format, we all do.

We all are charitable in our own way and like to harp about it whenever we can. Of course, that our sympathy is subject to multiple variables that range from our mood on a given day to the company we are trying to impress to (and this is the most common one) religious compulsions and the amount of God’s grace we think we can buy off our kindness and handouts.

Sympathy, obviously, is in no short supply, erratic timing and convenience notwithstanding. But empathy, well, empathy is what Urban India is loathe to spare for the people it would rather not see or recognize the humanity of.

None of this implies that the whole of the Urban populace in this country has turned evil and cruel. We still retain our humanity — the humanity that spills on streets as candle light vigils and silent protests against issues like lynching #Notinmyname and corruption. We are not blind to the tragedies of our fellow men but more often than not, nothing short of a Nirbhaya or an Akhlaque Khan is enough to shake us out of our stupor.

We are not cruel. We are lazy and complacent. We are willing to raise our voices against issues and show solidarity with fellow human beings, but only if the issue in question escalates beyond our excessively high limit of tolerance. We are selective in our compassion and everyday kindness rarely makes the cut. And when the guilt of our own everyday cruelty gets too heavy for our conscience, we hide behind the excuse of systemic repression of our poor and marginalized citizens and our perceived helplessness in doing anything about it.

Yes, this is a large country and we have way too many systemic issues. Most of us are much too ordinary to even make a minor dent in the system, let alone bring a sea change. But, just because we are ordinary doesn’t absolve us of the responsibility of being human, of sparing basic kindness and compassion for everyone we come in touch with irrespective of who they are and what strata they belong to.

It doesn’t give us an excuse to do nothing.

We cannot change the future of the kid at the crossroad. But we can brighten his day by handing him a candy or offering him some food and/or clothes. Maybe it will change nothing in his life but at least for a few minutes, he will have a reason to smile. Maybe his faith in humanity will be restored a little; maybe he will find a reason to keep pushing, keep fighting and make it to the other side as a functioning adult.

We cannot eliminate poverty, but we can feed and/or clothe one hungry, homeless at a time. We cannot eliminate domestic labor but we can at least be polite to our maid, and maybe give her a few extra bucks once in a while.

Maybe the vendor’s honesty is suspect, but in the end he is merely trying to make ends meet at a position that is far disadvantaged compared to us. Sparing him of our righteous outrage will not make us any poorer, but will definitely make his day easier.

Maybe giving beggar money is a bad idea. But taking him to the nearest shop to offer him food is not such a stretch on your time and resources that you cannot afford it.

Maybe that customer care guy is annoying and makes you want to bang your head on the wall. But in the end, he is merely doing his job. And while it may be hard to remember in the heat of the moment, he is ultimately a mere, poor employee with little or no authority. Screaming at him may make you feel better, but it achieves nothing. Sparing him of your rage (bonus points if you can spare politeness), however, will make his day a lot better.

Small acts of everyday kindness may not be much. But they are something. And something trumps nothing any day.

Kindness is not conditional. It is not a means to an end. Even when the end maybe something as noble as a social change. Kindness doesn’t have to be a movement. It is an act of being human, and should be exercised as such, no questions asked. Sometimes a smile, extra tip, few kind words, an attentive ear, or just letting go of the instinct to scream or haggle is all it takes to brighten someone’s day.

Tip generously, smile a lot, be polite. Remember everyone is human (even the faceless voice at the other end of an annoying sales call) and everyone has the right to their moods and bad days. So be compassionate, spare a little patience for the hassled, spare your pennies for less privileged and spare your time for anyone who seems to need it.

It is not too much to ask. And often, it is all that is needed.

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Runjhun Noopur

Author, Nirvana in a Corporate Suit. ( Entrepreneur. Happiness Coach. Subscribe to my newsletter at