I haven’t been open about this aspect of my life and this has been restricted mainly to my personal conversations with people who know me and are close to me. I have been in Europe now for around 6 years and people have asked me a lot of questions. If only I knew the answer, I am still figuring that out.
But here’s a story that might highlight the point I am trying to understand and express. This revolves around the words: dignity, humanity, charity, altruism, religion, faith. The three main points I want to communicate in this story are:
- I have seen two kinds of people doing charity. One who do it, but do it anonymously without showing it off or being visible. Other do it in a more visible way. Which one is the right way or the wrong way is not important here. We can’t judge, you choose what suits you best.
- Every human being has dignity. For the sake of simplicity, “Dignity is our inherent value and worth as human beings; everyone is born with it.”
- Every human being is capable of empathy.
It makes me very uncomfortable whenever I see someone trying to look down upon someone. So when I hear people talking about homeless people in the same way, I get irritated. But now I try not to react and care less.
Recently I visited Berlin in the quest of finding some answers and I had a random encounter. I was walking down the street alone and I heard someone playing the flute. I love the sound of flute so I slowed down to hear instead of walking away. Coincidentally, the guy was playing just outside an Indian restaurant. People walked past him and nobody was paying attention to him. When he finished playing, I walked up to him and said, “That was really nice. I stopped just to listen to you. I love the sound” He had a big smile on his face and said, “Are you from India?” I hoped the next words to be something stereotypical like I do Yoga Tantra too, or whatever version of India, Berlin is smoking. But thankfully, he said: “My guru who taught me flute was from India. Where in India are you from? Are you from Kolkata?” I said, “No. But close from Kolkata. Actually that’s the reference point I use to tell people here where I am from. I am from a city near to Kolkata. When I say near, I mean just 500 kilometres.”
For the record, I didn’t think he was a homeless person, I just thought he was a street performer. So after our friendly chat, I asked him if he could play again and let me record. He happily obliged and put up a show for me. I got a solo performance, and he got a dedicated solo audience. Some people smiled as they saw me watching and listening to him as they walked past. He played a Tibetan Mantra that he loved, for me.
After the performance we talked a little more about him, his family, how he got into this whole music thing. He also knew how to play Tabla, and complained that he is unable to get the real deal here anymore. I said, well you can ask someone going to India to bring it for you. I asked to take a picture with him, and we had this photo together. After which he asked me, “Do you have one or two euros for me?” I handed him a few coins which I had in my pocket and we said goodbye.
So I was having this discussion last year with a student on a topic around homeless people. The topic was centred on, “Giving a Bag full of essentials to homeless people?” And I had a question for them: “Would you give a homeless person a mobile phone, if he/she asks for one?” My discussed also had follow up questions: “Why do you need a phone? Which phone do you have?” But the main point I was trying to communicate was, keeping in touch with family, friends or loved ones is an inherently human need. We all have that. So instead of food or medicine, if a homeless person asks for a mobile phone, many of us would respond like this student did. “Mobile phone is not a need, its luxury” Oh well. I will let the #CommIsAid people defend that.
I wanted to use this example of an alcohol smelling street artist to try and understand the points above. He could very well be mistaken as a homeless person, at least judging by the looks of people passing by and avoiding him. You could drop the coins, hand over your change and walk away. You could also stop by, talk, and listen. Or just, ask for their name and try to spend some time. Time and Attention are probably the only two valuable things we have. Money is probably something we created to make things easy or difficult or maintain order.
The other question I ask around people who feel sad about homeless or poor people is:
“Have you ever tried to talk to one? Or sit with one and chat, have tea or eat/share food with them?”
That’s where things get a little uncomfortable and people walk away.
The point is very simple, the ability to see the humanity in people is inherently human as well, I guess the word is empathy. When you make eye contact with a passer-by, you acknowledge the person’s existence. When you talk to the person beyond politeness and courtesy, you make a personal connection, which is an inherent human need as well.
These people have a name, a story, a family, their own life and circumstances. Just like you.
So my final question would be, “What’s the difference between you and a homeless person?” And once you have answered the What, dig into to the Why and keep looking. Don’t tell me, figure it out for yourself.
And then the next thing I need to work on is Dignity<->Money connection. But for now, here’s the flute performance video.
“Little children, let us love not in word and speech, but in action and truth.”