Passing by on the other side

Published : Nov 17, 2006 00:00 IST

In our metropolitan lives the old bonds and links have gone; we live in our own little worlds, not wishing to connect with anyone else.

CHITTARANJAN Park is a residential area in New Delhi that was set up for refugees from the erstwhile East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Not surprisingly, nearly all those who were allotted plots there and built themselves houses are Bengalis, although people from other communities, very few in number, had bought plots of land from East Bengalis in the early 1980s.

There is a story that one was told of the young men in Chittaranjan Park - of what they did in 1984, when Indira Gandhi was assassinated. In the pogrom that followed, many Sikh families sought refuge in this area. The rioters, who had slaughtered large numbers of Sikhs in other parts of the city, turned their attention to Chittaranjan Park.

The story was that the young men, armed with hockey sticks, lay in wait at each of the roads that led into the colony and thrashed the thugs who tried to get in. They maintained their vigil for days, taking it in shifts, and stopped only when peace was finally restored in the city. The records show, according to the story, that not one Sikh was harmed in Chittaranjan Park during the terrible orgy of murder by persons who professed to be loyal followers of Indira Gandhi.

Now, these young men were also known to be very inquisitive and kept track of all that went on in the homes of those who live in CR Park, as it has come to be known. Some residents found that irksome, as they felt it compromised their privacy. They did not particularly appreciate a cheerful greeting of a morning "What, mashima (aunt), so the son-in-law has finally arrived, has he? Works in America, doesn't he? Must be earning a lot. Pity he won't be staying long." Or "Here, kakababu (uncle), so you're selling your old car, we hear. And getting a smart Santro, eh? That bank manager is a shrewd man, he has fixed you up with a loan good and proper. How much are you paying a month?"

Irritating though these comments may have been, it is, as residents of that colony will tell you, a part of life there. When the young men gather in the evenings, one major `item' on the agenda is local gossip, and the one who gets the most interesting `items' is regarded with awe and respect. But this has another side to it. If there is a tragedy in a family - someone dying, for example - these young men will be there promptly and will take on the task of preparing for the funeral, particularly if the family is too distraught to do anything about it.

One mentions this to demonstrate that in some places there is a kind of bonding, through gossip, admittedly, but that is also a kind of security, a helpline when someone is in distress. In a giant metropolis like Delhi, this is no mean achievement, particularly as there are many more instances of the opposite, of turning away when someone needs help.

The media have often carried tragic instances of this: victims of road accidents lying on the road and everyone hurrying on, paying no attention to a life ebbing away; groups of thugs harassing a girl in the presence of other people and none of them doing a thing to prevent it.

Occasionally, there is someone who does help, as the man who picked up a milkman knocked down by a lout of a boy driving his father's car like a maniac - but these are isolated cases, far too isolated. In general, our faces are turned away.

To come back to CR Park, it seems fairly clear that what some residents consider to be unwarranted inquisitiveness is, in a real sense, the building of links, of establishing contact with other people, even though the manner of doing so may appear strange. That is why, when they are needed, the young men arrive to help.

It is what the word neighbour really means - someone who bonds with you, and not necessarily the man next door.

That, in fact, is what Jesus said when he narrated the parable of the Good Samaritan.

A lawyer asked him what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus countered by asking him what the law said, and the lawyer told him that the law required him to love God with all his heart, soul and strength, and to love his neighbour as himself.

"You have answered correctly," Jesus told him, "Do this and you will live."

But the lawyer was, after all, a lawyer and immediately asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbour?"

Then Jesus told the lawyer the parable of the Good Samaritan - and it is important that one understands that a Samaritan was hated by the Jews. In the parable, it was the Samaritan who helped the man who had been beaten and robbed by thieves.

"Who," Jesus asked, "was a neighbour to the man?"

The lawyer clearly did not want to say "The Samaritan" because that was distasteful, so he said, artfully, "The one who showed mercy toward him."

And in saying this, he himself defined just what a neighbour was.

In earlier, simpler times, one read of communities where everyone knew everyone else; today one hears about, and sees on television, villages where the villagers know one another and know all that goes on in one another's families.

Many of us will have met such people, who bring with them another man and plead that he be employed. "He is my brother" is the common justification given, and one discovers only later that "brother" means that he belongs to the same village.

In our metropolitan lives these bonds and links have gone; we live in our own little worlds, not wishing to connect with anyone else. Certainly not in general.

And so when we lie bleeding on the road, other residents pass by as if they see no one, which is probably true. There is no one to see. One sees someone when one reaches out and establishes contact.

Compassion does not come easily to a figure one cannot relate to, not to most people. Curiosity, sadness even, but compassion means something positive, what the lawyer speaking to Jesus called mercy.

Perhaps, we need to look once again at the groups of young men in CR Park, peering into houses, eavesdropping and sharing the news they pick up.

In a faceless, impersonal and cold metropolis, they have established some kind of link with people whom they see as neighbours, to know about, to help when they fall or are in distress. That is when inquisitiveness translates instantly into mercy, in a way that they themselves do not think about. It is a bonding that has endured through the years, thankfully.

Not that they have replicated a village community; what they have is, or used to be, fairly widespread in Kolkota and it is peculiarly urban in its characteristics.

It was, and is, at best parallels to the bonding of village communities, not imitations. Which is why it endures in CR Park and which may be why it will continue to do so long after the present generation is gone.

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