There’s always two roads that our personality takes. There’s the person who we want to be, and the person who we actually are. Somewhere along the way, our ideals from the former dissipate their magnificence into the void of emotion and empathy, and what we’re left with is a person who’s a slightly smaller glimpse of what they could have been. There’s what we wish we were, and what we are. Even the strongest minds and most determined smart-workers (note: not hard-workers) aren’t able to fully express who they want to be merely by actions or by living life. If I ask myself who I’d want to be, I’d have a million different answers. For one, I wish I were more empathetic.
One day I was coming back from school in our car. Our driver and my sister were in front. We were stuck in traffic; my mind hazily wandered over green fields and meadows of longing and whispers of success, as it usually did. The car crawled by centimetres per hour. The traffic was immense. Mumbai has a particular knack for being so crowded and huge, and yet so small at the same time. The roads intertwine into a maze of unplanned urban sprawl, as though a child had scribbled on a map that his father accidently took to the Urban Planning Commission. And between all the people running around and the cars honking their lives away, I heard a thud on the other side of the car. There was an old man knocking on the window. He sort of screamed and asked if we could drop him to a place on the way to where I was actually heading. How he knew where we were going, I don’t know. Perhaps he knew me. Either way, he was a genuine old bloke who spoke polished English. In the heat of the moment, as the car inched forward, I shook my head. I said no. Then there was a gap in front of us where the car could move ahead by a few metres, and so it did. The man came by and asked again. I could see the helplessness in his eyes, despite having no context whatsoever as to his intentions or the situation he was in. He came back and asked the same thing. I still said no. I wasn’t going to let a stranger into our car, with my little sister in the front; this is India, and despite the humility and humanity of our people, it’s not a very safe place. I had to think of my and others’ safety before I could think of helping strangers I’ve never met.
But that’s not the worst part. I’m sure I’ve denied help to many people and not thought about it at all. I rarely give a beggar money because in my eyes, I’ve never seen them do anything to deserve it. Also, my money would only help them in the short term. In the long term, I’m helping the drug lords and the kidnappers, as you must have seen in Slumdog Millionaire. It’s a problem that plagues this country, but if I am to do my bit to stop it, I can by curbing it at the grass-roots. But denying the old man help is not what I feel bad about, because I had my reasons.
“Please, I’m a father,” he said.
And he smiled. And as the car took off I looked back to see him standing on the divider between the roads, and I acknowledged that this strange situation will no doubt affect my perspective of life in some little way. My first instinct was to feel bad, which I did for a while. But then I reminded myself that I was not in the wrong. It was my choice to make, and I had taken the safer route. In a split second I’d decided to not take the chance of risking my and others’ safety at the cost of helping a stranger I’ve never seen before. But yet, there’s a small part of me that feels I didn’t do the right thing on that day. And it is in suppressing those little inklings of doubt that we face one of life’s greatest hurdles.
Sometimes I wonder what would have happened had I told my driver to stop and opened the door to the old man. Would I have helped a fellow human being in a time of need, perhaps with a dying child in a hospital (because of what he said about being a father), or would I have been duped by an eccentric? I’ll never know. And his smile of defeat will have taught me of a new outlook towards life, which I am, regretfully, incapable of living to the fullest if I am to ponder over happenings like this. But then again, I am a writer, and a writer’s job is not just to confront issues, but to illuminate minds; to plant a tree in a part of a person’s character that they’ll only realise when it grows, and its branches loom over and shade the garden with the magnificence of its ideals. And that’s what makes life exciting.