It was a moving, melodramatic end to a great movie; the acting was superb. Hundreds of Holocaust victims/factory workers in their stripped clothes flocked to the fore to have a better glimpse of their saviour. The main actor of that plot was a certain aristocrat who had the privilege of shuttling between concentration camps. As World War II came to an end the savior knew that his time to bid farewell had come. But not before taking stock of his recent deeds: he had been buying time for hundreds of Jews from the Nazi concentration camp by recruiting them as workers for his factory.
Finally, he bitterly and regretfully conceded that even his car, golden badge and ring that he had kept with him could have bought freedom and life to a few more people; crestfallen, he succumbed to remorse and guilt for his failure to have done more for the condemned. The survivors of that tragedy in Czechoslovakia came forward and stripped him near naked as they wanted to keep some memento of that great man that Schindler was. The savagery and cruelty of some men were outplayed by the courage and determination of one man to save some humans from the jaws of death: thinking of others was itself a feat in those dark days of history. Perhaps some of us will need extraordinary circumstances to rise to the occasion.
We can have another glimpse of a different facet of that human pathos through the pages of a recent National Geographic issue. Here a photographer in Africa had taken the photo of a starving, bony individual. As he was literally crawling towards a far away food relief centre, a vulture was stalking some ten metres behind him, waiting for its time to pounce on that human prey. That photographer would surely have witnessed many more such intolerable African tragedies, because finally he committed suicide. His collective conscience got the better of him.
Elsewhere there are many such tragic episodes being played at this very moment, but thank God, we can say we are far away from them. But, could we remain immune to so much human suffering? Or do we just ignore them so as to shield our own psyche and well-being from harm? Or are we playing the ostrich — and thinking that ignorance is bliss?
On a sunny day many of us might have the occasion to enjoy the comfort of our home, our sofa or canapé in our living room while telling ourselves that all is well in God’s heaven. But a few of us may wake up momentarily with guilt, and gaze around our home with different eyes: did we need such curtains, and table and set of chairs?
As we look around we are baffled by the amount that we have invested on all sorts of paraphernalia for the house. Of course it was done piecemeal and partly by the spouse. We may start wondering whether we really needed all these small things to achieve happiness? Could we live a more simple life without sacrificing our comfort? Did we really need to have feathered our nest to that extent — always getting ready for the rainy days? And could we, like Schindler, have had the courage to siphon some of our wealth to other less fortunate human beings?
That thought may render some of us fidgety and uncomfortable in our shoes; of course, it is our ego which would start wriggling with protests. To justify our ‘miserliness’, we would think vehemently of the why of laws on private property; we would talk of internal decoration, of elegance – all of which are supposed to illuminate our selves, our life, our educational status and advertise our taste to the external world. We would ruminate and tell ourselves – can we afford to displease the logic of businessmen by boycotting their well-laid plan of social/financial stability by throwing havoc into the vicious circle of consumerism?
We may feel that contributing some dozen of rupees to benevolent organizations now and then is adequate to assuage our sensitive conscience. Or we may adopt the well-known stance of a rationalist: we have voted a government to power to take care of the needy; we pay our taxes regularly, we are contributing our share to society, which should do its duty and leave us alone to live our life without a sense of guilt. And the wealth we are accumulating is after all not just for us, it is for our children. And what could be nobler than planning and thinking for the next generation? Giving to the poor is just a temporary measure; those people must rise and try to fend for themselves. They must be given the opportunities to find their way and not be spoon-fed perpetually.
Most of us have all sorts of arguments to fortify our psyche and to persuade ourselves the reason why we cannot part with hard-won money.
But at the back of our mind we know that there are millions of human beings going hungry or without water everyday. What can be done? What can a few individuals like us without a global policy do to alleviate suffering? Gradually we discover that the problem cuts deeper into our complex world. Whereas we need 2 billion people as an optimum for comfortable distribution of wealth, food and water, we suddenly find ourselves with 7 billion. What kind of education do we need to give our people, so as to impress that we must have population control as the very first step to prosperity? Where do we get the wealth to kick-start such an educational program? How do we get rid of old superstitions and some religious obscurantisms (polio health care persons are murdered)? Do we have stable governments and honest leaders everywhere to implement such tasks? Will some greedy heartless international cooperatives keep away from exploiting the poor and stop pleasing the shareholders? Can they afford to do that and still survive? Of all the gold extracted from African soil only 3% of its value come back to the Africans!
As we think deeply of the problem – we realize that our feelings, compassion and sensitivity have opened a mental Pandora’s box. There is no immediate or ready-made solution. Looking back on human history we find that we have made progress; there are more rich people nowadays than a millennium ago. There are less wars and conflicts; there are more bumper crops than before. But, at the same time, we do realize that the distribution of wealth is horribly skewed while our environment has a completely different story to tell.
Our material progress and feeding programs are too slow to keep pace with our demands while our feelings are too volatile and eruptive to understand logically the whole problem. In spite of the experience of financial elites, super experts and laws for checks and counter checks, the 2008 economic crash did occur – and CEOs of the defaulting banks got away with billions as compensations while 90 millions lost their jobs worldwide! Billions are going hungry yet some states, in a not so far away past, had dumped tons of food in the sea to prevent worldwide deflation in the prices of such grains!
We find ourselves back to square one: what is legal and what is moral? Who dares to sacrifice some percentage of their pay for the downtrodden in the face of such official flagrant daylight robbery and double standard? How come that some dozens of families are richer than a few billions of people? What miracle brought about that unequal distribution of wealth? Are we yet to find the right governmental formula or policy to prevent such disequilibrium in our society?
The question is: will altruism be enough to solve our practical problems or should we make pragmatism and rationalism the cornerstone of all solutions to our poverty? Some of us may ask: Is it not more satisfying and stable to respect, love and enrich ourselves first and then proceed to think of others in that social benevolent adventure? Or should we think of our own foetal life where our brain, our liver, skin, heart and all other organs — all developed concurrently, side by side, and become finally mature to produce an individual? Should society be looked upon similarly – let us enrich ourselves and concurrently contribute to the less fortunate – so that we do not end up by having an immature, fragile social structure, where billions are starving and a few are wallowing in their wealth. If only we have a pragmatic social, political ideology and structure to take care of all those worries for us, then we may have a better scope for greater happiness for the maximum number of people.
* Published in print edition on 19 March 2015