The Bourgeoisie Strike Back

In my recent post for NYT’s India Ink, “Let Them Eat Charity,” I try to deconstruct the web of lies we tell ourselves when we ignore the neediest amongst us—people like Ujjwal Sharma, a 7-year-old boy with leukemia.

I thought I’d covered all our excuses and rationalizations, but the commenters on my post proved me wrong.

For starters, I missed the there’s-always-someone-needier ploy. “Ringollo” writes:  “… I have just finished reading a book on Indian slums. My first reaction was, Ujjwal’s family has access to a computer and is soliciting donations in California??” I eagerly await Ringollo’s second reaction, but meanwhile I have good news for him: at the rate at which Internet access is spreading, soon everyone will be undeserving of charity. Mission accomplished!

Prof. Alfonse Romero, another commenter, was less outraged by our lack of empathy for Ujjwal than by my inexcusable use of first-person plural: “Lots of “we” and “us” in your piece, Mr. Mungee. Are you sure it’s not just you?” Yes, Prof. Romero, I’m pretty sure it’s not just me, it’s most of us—maybe everyone except you? Thank you for your generous donation.

And from the so-bourgeois-I-don’t-even-see-it-anymore department, we have “Sandy413,” who writes: “I have to work for the first four months in a year just to pay Uncle Sam who then does the charity on my behalf (and I don’t object to paying taxes, by the way).” Happy April!

But my favorite comment is from “Jacob,” who writes, “The problem for you is that you’re worthless at everything besides writing code.” Yes, Jacob, it’s a terrible problem; I cope somehow.

(Jacob’s comment narrowly won over Saurabh’s, who feels I’ve read too much of Ayn Rand.)

__

On a more serious (and paradoxical) note, as I was writing and researching this piece, I realized that I hate so many things about charity: the selfish motivations behind it, the arbitrariness of outcomes, the inefficiency, our desperate social dependence on it, and the sickly sweet devotional halo that surrounds it.

Betty S. echoes my sentiment in her comment: “… in an age where the greatest virtue is self-fulfillment, charity and ‘service’ has become therapy as a host of 12 step programs and evangelical churches attest. Bourgeois Americans demand an emotional feel-good pay-off with each discreet act of charity.” And, I might add, with each act of non-charity as well—to not help others is an ordinary human flaw, but to be heartless and portray it as an act of morality? That, my fellow passengers of the Titanic, takes a Republican candidate for President.

I couldn’t agree more with Joel R’s critique of charity, who writes: “Proponents of charity urge to do something now, to not politicize the subject, but just blindly give instead of criticizing the root of the issue, lack of healthcare, lack of general welfare, etc. and the deteriorating condition of global capitalism as a modus operandi.”  It’s all true. All I can offer you, Joel, are the two weasel words we use to preface every ugly software architecture decision: “For now, …”

Many of my Indian (and American) friends suggested that I should have explored whether Indians donate less than Americans. Some said I was too chicken to wade into that controversy. I just think that ethnic comparisons of charity are irrelevant; conscience doesn’t have a skin color. Besides, even if some statistic shows incontrovertibly that Indians are stingy donors, it would only provoke ethnic group defenses (rather than individual reflection), e.g. “Yes, maybe Indians donate less, but given our long history of financial insecurity, that is totally understandable,” or, much more likely in today’s state of the web, “India bashing!” (my suggestion for a new Facebook button.)

But Ramesh Raghuvanshi from Pune articulates what I suspect many of my friends feel: “[Sumedh] must understand charity is western concept. Indians by nature narcissist, they want their own liberation from life and death circle. so in India social consciousness never developed.” Don’t you just love comments that undermine themselves by their very existence?

It’s too early to judge if my post will help Ujjwal, but, sadly, “Let Them Eat Charity” seems far less popular than “Why I Left India (Again)” (#youremember). At least this time I won’t become Chetan Bhagat’s muse.

__

We live in incredibly short-sighted, cynical and self-destructive times—in other words, splendidly capitalist times. It feels pointless to try to save any one particular life—I think that’s because we’re OD’ing on our own lies. And that, with apologies to those who said my piece was pointless, was the point, sort of. Also, Help Ujjwal.

While I’m Still Alive

After my recent essay, “Why I Left India (Again)“, a nice gentleman on Twitter said he’d hunt me down in the U.S. While I wait for him, I thought I’d jot down a few final words.

First off, as the author—or should I say, survivor—of a personal essay about my experiences in India, I have some advice for other writers: don’t. But if you must, avoid using italics. Not that it would have mattered.

I see my essay as just one among the 250+ comments that follow it. Many of the comments are thought-provoking; others make my post look awesome in comparison. There is also a quora page, a reddit page,  a parody and a psychoanalysis. The diversity of viewpoints is stunning. The comments section of my post has also become a fertile hunting ground for the “patriots”; the government should declare it a protected habitat.

The patriots can put down their Trishools; I don’t blame India, I blame my inability to handle the internalized stress that comes not only from being immersed in a society with so much poverty, but also in a culture that largely accepts the status quo.

One commenter on Quora said (about my post): “… by writing a blog on the NYT, I think it is implied that everyone will feel this way.” I can only hope that the NYT never publishes a personal essay titled, “Why I Dropped Out Of College.”

I am happy that so many feel India makes them more empathetic and connected with the real world. I had a different, less noble reaction—I was learning, like so many who walk past the invisible beggar every day,  to plug in my earphones and tune out of reality.

Sometimes you fight, sometimes you watch, and sometimes you are the status quo you wish to destroy.

The other responses to my post are profound; it will take me a long time to digest them. But, and this was a common criticism, I’m taking an “easy route”; I’ve recruited my wife to help me understand them.

The harshest attacks came from those who took my personal story as a negative commentary on India—something that needed to be rebutted, ridiculed or ideally, silenced. My reaction to being told to shut up is to speak out, and so to commenter #2, who said, “Thanks for leaving! Your presence in India was of an UNWANTED guest,” I wish to say: Happy Diwali.

Someone’s at the door.