We have made our life so stereotyped that to point out that not everyone can celebrate a New Year, Bangla or English or Chinese, or the Japanese Ganjitsu, orthe Afghan or Iranian Nauruz, or Pi Mai in Laos, or Songkhran in Thailand, or Enkutatash in Ethiopia, or the Dab Shiid in Somalia… there is no dearth of festivities and expenses…has become cheap, laughed-off, and ignored cliché. But it is true.
WE have been hearing since our childhood and our grandparents since theirs that we should share our joy with the underprivileged and the unfortunate, the neglected in our society. Our religions tell us not to have a full meal without ensuring that the neighbour has not gone hungry. And, lo! How many children do? How many mothers are really boiling only water as the child looks on in anticipation?
WE have seen topless urchins pick up food (or what was left of it) from roadside dustbins and drains, food that we thought was not worth having. WE have also seen the delight on the face of the rag pickers, a smile worth several kgs of jilapee, for a broken piece of that is what I saw a dusty, ashen, bony child pick up from a Bailey Road drain as I was walking to an Iftar 'party'. He seemed happy.
WE have walked past lowly people sleeping on the pavement lest they should wake up and ask for something, not that we do not have anything to hand out; it is just that it is too much trouble getting out the bag and unzipping it and… what if they ask for more? Yet our gesture and very little time could make any of them dream on a full tummy. But we are not the ones who are hungry. And, so we walk by even if in guilt. But most often we walk by.
WE have even stopped the seven- or eight-year old girl who walks up to our car and starts brushing the windshield with a dusty rag. She was doing it for a coin, at best two taka. Have we not all written essays on the dignity of labour? WE brush her away because we do not want to get our car any dirtier, or perhaps we do not have any change or that it is too much trouble getting out the bag and unzipping it…
WE think, yes many of us really do that the beggar (or most of them) has taken up soliciting alms as a profession. And so it is better (for us) that we do not give anything at all. WE do not want to spoil (?) them. WE think by not giving we are actually righting a wrong. Let him work. Let her find a job. But are we not the ones who invented terms like 'work experience', 'reference', and 'qualification'? They stand no chance.
WE may not realise this, but all 'economically poor' people are not scroungers. Many of these humble people possess self-respect. They struggle, yes they are beaten now, but no, they are not defeated. They live on hope. They gather experience, they acquire qualification, and they build references.
WE are in some ways poorer than those deprived souls, lacking more than them in self-respect...we too beg for a job, we lobby for a license, we seek a favour for our child, we give references to get an advantage, we extrude a loan, even personal ones, repayment of which we do not think is always absolutely necessary. We are beggars of a different kind.
WE are amazed by the resolve in some of these people we think we can pity. Walking on the Road 8 pavement along Dhanmandi Lake, I side glance to see in the dim of the street light above a mother in near rags and in full authority gathering a handful of books; the child in front of her is crouched on the pavement on all fours trying to read in the shadow of the late evening. They will not be poor for long. They were only born that way.
WE may have never wondered what the hungry, hopeless, and hapless kid on the street thinks, as he watches the fireworks fizzle in the sky; but perhaps not because (we think) they cannot equate our expenses with their needs. I am told a five-minute display of pyrotechnics costs anything above three lakh Taka. Considering a square meal costing about fifty taka, the expense could feed a family of five persons for a whole year. But then what will the other lakhs and lakhs of families do? So, let's get on with the bangers and the crackers. Let us set alight the night.
WE humans have not been able to manage in the least our resources and that is why our wealth distribution is so lopsided locally, but universally so. The effect is more terrifying in poorer countries because there is so little to go around.
WE have to be charitable in the midst of our festivals and merrymaking. WE have to set aside a bit for the majority, each time. WE have to assess what forms the essential elements of our merriment, and would our joy be multiplied if we shared our savings with the other half.
WE will have our Baisakhijatra, and the Japanese their Oshogatsu on the first three days of January, but gifts of lasting value could very well be sent to those from whom we expect no more than a smile of serenity. We will teach them to fish, not give them the fish.
WE could use the Chinese years of symbolic animals to work wonders for a child who has never even heard of China. Imagine his joy as he gets a toyrat and his family a new hut to keep away the rain. WE could sponsor an ox for a family, or a few roosters for another. I have not quite figured out how we will handle the year of the tiger or for that matter serpent. But it will always be about giving.
WE could in the thirteen days of NauRuz, the Iranian New Year, in late March take up as many projects for as many needy families. We could arrange for them to cultivate seven kinds of foods, even if we did not take their names beginning with the letter S too seriously, as is the Iranian custom. The Afghans celebrate NauRuz only on the first day of spring in March, but I hope they will understand.
WE could follow the Ethiopian traditions as they do at the end of the rainy season, and make real flowers bloom in our slums and Aila-Sidr hit remote villages. In Ethiopia children sing songs of happiness on New Year, as they present one house after another with flowers that they gathered, hoping in turn to be gifted with roasted grain. It is always about giving.
WE couldbe selfish, and work for a better future; each of us could teach at least one family to fish.
WE may have missed out this Pahela Boisakh, but let us better our record starting the next festival…and why not from today?