The unintended consequence of prosperity is that people get left behind. The deeper that you get into India, the more you realise how severe these consequences are. I am not saying that there isn’t an element of this in every place in the world, but when you step onto the streets in most parts of this country, it is something that cannot be ignored. Virpur, a small village in Western Gujarat, has an important part to play in this story and you have probably never even heard of it.
It is the birthplace and home of Jalaram Bapa, an ascetic saint that is revered within mine and many other families of Indian origin for his work with those blighted by poverty. He is often depicted as a slender man, wearing a white or orange simple tunic and turban, with prayer beads around his neck and between his fingers and a small walking stick that comes up to his chest. Whilst he is not fantastically well known outside Gujarat, if you go to any temple in England, you are likely to find some sort of statue or shrine dedicated towards him. He is not worshipped as a God, but admired as a man with an extraordinary compassion and character, disbarring the debilitating caste system at the time (often misunderstood) and feeding anyone of any creed that walked through his door.
The feeding continues today within his ashram, which is one of the oldest educational systems in the world dating back nearly 5000 years. The town itself remains one of the poorest parts of the region, but the effect of his teaching has pushed the population to become more sustainable and rely less on begging and other forms of dishonest earning. Not everyone has very much, but what they have is true.
For my Mum, it was the first emotional moment in the trip so far. Having heard the stories and seen this in pictures, it was the culmination of a long time coming. However, it was not without complications. From the moment that we touched down, there was a young girl who carried her younger brother on her shoulder and followed us everywhere that we went. My brother and I gave each other a self-defeating look, having encountered similar situations in the past. My Mum on the other hand, looked at the girl and relaxed her shoulders – she couldn’t just let the child go.
It started with a small snack from the local sweet shop – the child looked satisfied that she had got a treat and Mum was happy knowing that she had not given her money, but something a bit more meaningful. Yet, the child continued to follow. It then moved to a sari that Mum had been keeping to give away – she hoped that the child’s mother would also be pleased to get something too – not with the intention of it being charity, but almost as a present considering the sari was not worn. The following continued. By this point, other children arrived and my brother was thoroughly annoyed that Mum had continued to encourage that behaviour.
I can’t say that I was pleased either, considering the girl’s unrelenting behaviour even when Mum tried to help as much as she could. However, when Mum turned around in the car and looked at us both, she explained why this town was so special to her – why this man was so revered because he gave without expectation or judgment and this resonated globally – and on any other occasion, she would have walked away, but she couldn’t just leave the child behind. I felt conflicted. Who was I to tell a mother, my mother, that giving in the way that she did was wrong? That creating this dependency, rewarding this behaviour as other girls looked on having returned from school was worse?
At the same time, what right did I have to tell an 11-year-old girl that she was ungrateful when it appeared that she had nothing? The complex of poverty, especially in the developed world, helps us to recognise that it exists but that we shouldn’t do anything about it. We shouldn’t give money because it is irresponsible, we should be careful of food or clothes as to not create dependency and some advise us to even avoid talking to them in case we put ourselves in “danger”.
The worst thing about the entire situation? We never even learnt her name. We didn’t ask her where she lived or what she liked. Because we saw her as a nuisance (my brother and I), like every other beggar (and I am ashamed to use this term), we forgot that she was just a girl who we could have had a conversation with. We wouldn’t have been able to help, but maybe we could have learnt something from our Mum and Jalaram Bapa.
I am still not convinced whether what we did was right or wrong. What I do know is I am so lucky for everything I have, and remembering to be grateful for that is the first step to finding the answer.