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The unbearable unkindness of being
How many times must a man turn his head/ And pretend he just doesn't see?/ The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind, / The answer is blowin' in the wind | Bob Dylan
Asked by his followers to explain what he meant when he said that we should love our neighbours as ourselves, Christ narrated the parable of the Good Samaritan. A man injured by robbers was lying bleeding by the roadside. A priest and a rabbi passed by without offering him help. Eventually along came a Samaritan who bandaged the victim's wounds and gave him food and shelter at an inn. The Good Samaritan loved his neighbour, the victim, as himself. Played out against the backdrop of today's urban India, the story of the Good Samaritan would have a very different outcome. The Samaritan comes across a bleeding, severely injured figure lying by the wayside. Hit-and-run ? Hit-and-rape ? Both? Without asking time-wasting questions, the Samaritan offers first-aid to the victim, and takes the person to the nearest hospital, in an autorickshaw.
The hospital is a private hospital and refuses to admit the patient unless someone (the Samaritan) puts down a security deposit of Rs 50, 000. The Samaritan not being in the habit of carrying Rs 50, 000 on his person - what with all the muggings taking place daily in the city - takes the victim to a government hospital.
The government hospital refuses to admit the victim unless a police report has been duly filed. The Samaritan takes the victim to the nearest police station. The officer in charge asks the Samaritan where he found the victim. When the Samaritan tells the officer this, the officer says that the location falls within the jurisdiction of another police thana.
So the Samaritan takes the victim to the second police station. The officer in charge begins to interrogate the Samaritan: Why did you pick up the victim? Don't you know that this is tantamount to interfering with a potential crime scene? Was the victim known to you? Is it not possible that it was you who injured the victim in the first place? The police take down the full details of the Samaritan, who is advised that he might have to make himself available for an unspecified number of court hearings if the case is ever tried.
In the meantime, the victim has died of blood loss, the Samaritan's boss has sacked him for being late for work, and the autorickshawalla wants to know who's going to pay his fare, plus the extra for cleaning his vehicle of bloodstains. Though New Year's Day is past, the Samaritan makes a New Year resolution anyway: to never again try to be a Good Samaritan. It just doesn't pay. When it comes to Samaritanism, Bad is better - or at least safer - than Good.
Why have we in urban India become so indifferent to the sufferings of our neighbours, of our fellow citizens in dire need of aid? Part of the reason could well be the sense of rootlessness in a society marked by increasing migration, not only from rural to urban areas, but also from city to city.
Many behaviour patterns are territorial: we act in different ways when we are in different and unfamiliar surroundings. Removed from their familiar home environment, and the behavioural code that it encloses, migrants - daily wage labourers, BPO workers, commercial executives, college students - can find themselves in what could be called a civic vacuum: a total lack of empathy with the complete stranger who is one's anonymous neighbour by random chance.
Increasingly, our cities and towns are no longer the common homes of all who live in them and share an affinity with the place they live in, and as such share an affinity with each other. Our urban spaces more and more resemble transit camps for refugees who, literally, are no-where and - in the teeming city where individuality is swallowed in a facelss multitude - can interact and relate to no-one.
Certainly not to the crumpled figure - man or woman;who knows, who cares? - lying like a heap of discarded rags by the roadside : Let's get out of here before we get involved, before someone blames it on us.
Is it possible for us to re-learn how to be better Samaritans, better neighbours to each other? Can we learn to see our own face - or the faces of our family members, loved ones - when we look at the face of a stranger?
There is a universal catechism, born under the spreading shadow of Nazi persecution, which might help us to put a face, our own face, on the faceless victim that we pass by: "First they came for the Jews and I did not speak because I was not a Jew. Then they came for the Communists and I did not speak because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me. " That's the retort to the parable of the Bad Samaritan.
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