The Rich and the Homeless – A Story from the Streets of India
During my visit to India in January 2006, I spent one week in Delhi, the capital, while volunteering at a small local orphanage and working for the Muhammad Abbas Foundation. One evening, I visited Jamma Masjid, a popular Muslim Mosque and tourist sight.
It was around 7pm and herds of impoverished locals had gathered at the local restaurants next to the mosque to receive what I found out was a free daily meal paid for by contributions made by the Muslim community towards the poor.
As I stood watching this phenomenon, hundreds of families gathered on the road outside eating their meals on large plate that was being shared by three or four people at once. I was in shock for a moment and realized that as I stood pondering, I had made eye contact with a man who was still waiting to be served. He looked remarkably peaceful despite his long un-groomed hair and beard, his dirty hands and face, and torn shall draped around his body. I noticed he was smiling at me clearly noticing that I had never seen anything like this before. I approached him and introduced myself. Arrogantly, I decided that I would talk to this man in hopes of getting to know him and maybe teach him some words in English like I had to so many other locals I met before him. But the conversation I had was not what I had expected….
I asked about his family and he pointed them out as they were all sitting together. He had a wife and three young children.
Knowing that he was homeless, I asked stupidly, “Where do you live?”
“Not far – not in a home, but a shelter,” he kindly replied
“What do you do?”
“I’m a cleaner, a sweeper. My wife sows garments.”
I continued to ask questions unintentionally that were ignorant and arrogant. I asked, “So what brings you here?” as the two of us sat outside a restaurant waiting for his meal. He was such a pleasant person, and didn’t feel awkward with my foolishness and kindly responded, “This is where we come to eat every night. Seven years now. This is our only meal, Al-Humdullah. (All Praise Be To God)
With a sorrowful look on my face which I hoped he would consider compassionate and forgive me for asking my pervious questions, I said, “So you remain hungry all day?”
He responded, “I can’t remember the last time I was hungry. We don’t feel hungry. But during Ramadan, then we get hungry during the day because everyone else is hungry. They make us hungry.”
“Do you even think about leaving Delhi to find better work or go somewhere warmer?”
“Why would I ever want to leave this? What more could I ask for?”
“Well I mean maybe you could earn more in Bombay?”
“I don’t need to earn more. Everything I need I have. Why leave when you have so much?” he said smiling as he looked around at the hundreds of peasants eating.
I then asked, “Don’t you ever want anything else? Something more then what you have?” I considered this question to be the turning point. I had stopped beating around the bush and asked him directly a question that I knew could have offended him or hurt his feelings. It was a sensitive question to ask, but I felt like his response would lead me for the rest of the conversation… after all… I was in India to help.
But his response was nothing along the lines of my expectations as he said with a very serious look after contemplating, “Chicken would be nice… But we get that during Ramadan so the answer is ‘no’.” I stared at him thinking of the response I was expecting compared to what I got. I didn’t realize there was about a 10 second pause before he continued, “you look disappointed?” It was at this point that I knew this conversation was turning into something much more. Either he did not know that there was so much more wealth to be had in this world, or he just did not want it.
“No I’m not disappointed, but surprised – I wouldn’t have thought that.” Then the interview turned around and he started asking the questions.
“Do you think that what you have is better then what I have?”
In a panic to gather my thoughts, I told him I didn’t understand what he was asking. But I realized that he was not so sheltered and that he knew about the wealth that evokes my society – and parts of his.
Then he continued, “You live in a home?”
“You have 5 different shirts?”
Not really knowing where he was going with this I replied, “maybe more then five, why?”
“More then five… Why?”
“I don’t know, I wear them.”
“All at once?”
“No! Different days…”
“So are you happy?” he asked.
In an effort to turn this conversation back into an interview I replied, “Yes I am, are you?”
He ignored my attempt, and said, “If you were happy then why are you here?”
Again trying to gather my thoughts in a sense of panic I replied, “What?”
“Why did you come to India if you were happy where you were?”
“Well I’m volunteering,” I said but his face looked like he was expecting more, so I continued, “And I like to meet people and see other places.”
“I thought you said you were happy?”
“Then why don’t you stay where you live?”
“I don’t know. I wanted to come and help others – This is what Islam teaches us!”
“That makes you happy?”
“Following Islam should make all Muslims happy, right?”
“So then you, yourself are not really happy.”
“Well not so much anymore…”
“See the difference between me and you is that you need to leave your home to find greater happiness. I don’t because I have everything I need and want right here.” I realized that he was referring to my questioning him about moving somewhere else to get better work or live somewhere warmer.
It hit me at that moment that I was in fact talking to a homeless man who lived in a sheet metal shelter on the side of the road. Yet he was showing me that he had so much more then I would have ever thought.
I tried to ease the mood and said, “Well, what about the chicken you wanted?”
“It will come. Some people will go after something right away to make them happy. Others will wait patiently. But those who wait get exactly what they wanted – those who rush usually have to make a sacrifice along the way.” He continued as his food was being handed to him and his family. Touching the head of his youngest child he said, “If you gave this boy 10 rupees, he does not need it. He won’t buy a house with it, nor will he give it to his family to buy bread. All he wants is a sweet. But the good sweets cost 20 rupees. But he won’t spend it to buy a different less expensive sweet. And he won’t buy half of the good sweet either. He will wait until he gets another 10 rupees. Then he will get what he wants. No matter how long it takes him, he has been taught never to settle for anything less then what he really wants.”
He paused and then asked, “Why are you here? Here asking people questions…”
“So I can… I don’t know… So I can be a better person.”
“You need to meet people to be a better person? Why? I thought you were here to help others… like Islam says to?”
“I am… And by learning about people who are different then me, then I can help them. And I can get others to help them as well.”
“You think we are helpless?”
“No Sir. But if I can help why shouldn’t I? You would help a brother in need!”
“Of course, but who is in need here?”
“I don’t know. I mean, don’t you wish things were different though? That you didn’t have to sit here eating only once a day? Or that you had five shirts? That’s what I mean when I say I want to help.”
He looked confused like he just did not understand what I had just said. And he questioned, “What would a person do with five shirts?” He said, “I do not understand your thinking. You want to make us wealthier? You want us to waste things? Eat when we don’t need to and have clothes we don’t wear?”
I thought he was waiting for me to respond, but before I could muster up an answer to his comment, he said, “Why ruin what we already have?”
In my head I was thinking that it wasn’t that I wanted to make the poor richer, but maybe slightly more developed – more education, more opportunities. I finally said, “I’m not trying to take anything from you – just want to help give you the chance to have more!” Even though I don’t completely believe in what I had said, as it seems a bit imperialistic and capitalistic, I was so struck with what he was saying to me I realized that I was just saying things that I thought a typical, North American Volunteer in India would have said at that point.
“You come here because of how unhappy you are. You’ve come here because you think you have so much, and you want to give it to us. But it’s what you have that is the cause of your own unhappiness… Your own abundances cause you so much unhappiness that you left it all behind to come and share it with me! We don’t want what you have because then we will turn out like you! We’ll be unhappy because we’ll always be looking for something better then what we have… and when some of us finally get all that we could ever want, we’ll be so unhappy that we’ll leave everything behind to go and give it to other people… and the cycle will never end until we are all unhappy or we are happy with what I already have right here today!”
“I just want you to be happy and I want to help you get what you need… That will make me happy…”
“That’s very nice of you, but what you don’t understand is that we have what we have and are happy with that. We don’t’ need you to come here with your money, gifts and language and give us false hopes. We have the whole world at our fingertips because this world means nothing to us. We don’t have too much that we love this world. We have enough to live humbly. But it seems like you have so much, but it makes you sad all that you have. You come to share it… teach us how to make more money, how to speak your language, how to do your medicine. Then we will have more. If I learn English I could be a tour guide. I could make more money. Build a home, send my children to a school, buy chicken and five shirts and I would love it… even though I can only wear one shirt at a time. But then I’ll want more you see. And I’ll work harder – I’ll provide my guests with my tour guide company with all their requests – good or bad. And slowly I’ll be so far from where I am today. I’ll have five shirts, but they wound up costing me so much more then 50 rupees. I won’t be happy because I know that if I work a little more, I can get six shirts – the point is that all I need is one!”
I couldn’t speak because I had realized what he was saying. This man who I saw as a homeless man, un-groomed, with dirty hands and a ripped shall eating free food was much richer then I was. He had what I have been trying to achieve. He was happy with himself, his life, and close to his God. I realized that that’s what I have wanted my whole life.
“What do I do now?” I asked.
“Understand and learn. Helping orphans is a good deed – don’t turn that into wanting to change our lives so we can be closer to the way you live. Be proud of who you are – not what you have.”
“How do I do that?”
“The way the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) did… live humbly. Live with little, but be happy that when your time comes you never had enough of this world to love it to a point where you don’t want to leave it.”
He continued, “Live your life – but dream about your death…”
“Tough balance…” I said
“What’s not tough…” and he started eating his first meal of the day.