Living in India can be relied upon to regularly dump upon you a barrelful of shittiness.
If you’re poor, you’re just screwed. If you’re on the middle rungs, you’re miserable because you’re perpetually struggling not to become poor while dreaming of making it good. And if you are in money – and have a conscience – you’re surrounded by choices that never allow you to do enough.
Take this small instance.
You hire somebody to come clean, dust and tidy your house. After a while, you realise they’re dependable and reliable and you can trust them with the house keys when you’re travelling. And because you don’t do things like dock them salary for days they’re ill (or can’t send a replacement), they hope and trust in you enough to start highlighting all their many many woes.
Unknown illnesses that require tests and medication equivalent to half a month’s salary. The need for more than two pairs of uniforms for the kids they’re putting through school. The fact that they continue to work although they’ve been medically ordered not to, because of malnutrition and malfunctioning organs. How they have to queue up for water at 4am and make their teenage daugther bathe at that hour to avoid prying eyes. Jealous relatives and neighbours who begrudge a small gift some employer may have passed on because it was unwanted.
So you help them. You help them with their paperwork, you apprise them of government schemes they can benefit from, you stand witness for them at banks and potential employers, you encourage them to get proper treatment with the extra money you’ve just handed them, you give them home remedies and buy them fruits so that they’re healthier.
Because you can. Because you want to. Because who else will do it. And you feel good about helping at least a few people, and you feel good about being able to help at least somebody directly and tangibly. And you think it’s all straightforward.
But consider this.
You want to give them a treat. You realise that with all their work and chores, they never get time to even go for a movie, and in any case, there are increasingly fewer places they can go to in our cities where they will not be turned away by the high prices and the security guards who are under instruction to let only a certain class of people in. You also know that they live near (and have to pass by) an area that hosts dozens of slightly upmarket restaurants where a single meal costs around a tenth of their monthly income – a meal you have about thrice a month. A meal consisting of ingredients they have never even heard of, or contemplated, or if they have, can only have dreamt of.
So you think of taking their whole family out for a movie, followed by a nice meal at one of those restaurants. You imagine the sheer, unalloyed pleasue of them laughing and cheering and whistling at a paisa vasool Bollywood flick. And the delighted curiousity of tasting food that is new, that is filling, and that is bahut faaaancy. It’s a small gesture for you, it would be something they would enjoy and remember, and everybody needs a respite from drudgery.
Because you then suspect that they would prefer to have that money and use it to buy necessities they’ve been denying themselves, or buy some material for their farm back home, or put aside for emergencies, or even just treat themselves to an expensive ice cream. Because they could always do with a little more money.
And you wonder how much of this is your own selfishness talking, your own desire to have done good. You consider whether they would be happy you got them into a posh restaurant with heavy cutlery and napkins and where obseqious waiters call them sir and madam, or whether they will resent you for taking them to a place where they clearly stand out as not belonging. You realise it’s easy for you to not care about what others think, but it might only make them more ashamed of what they perceive as their inadequances and ignorance.
So here you are.
Torn between giving them the money which they could immediately use and make their lives a little more comfortable, or treating them to an experience they would never otherwise, and which you hope would make their lives just a tad more happier*. Unable to even ask them to choose, because how can they judge what they haven’t experienced. And because asking them simply shunts off the misery of second-guessing onto them. And because offering them the choice only makes them more aware of what they’re missing.
And so here you are. Trying to choose. Failing miserably to do so.
*Yes, you could do compromise and do both. But the dilemma still applies – just doubles.