Acts of Kindness Etched in Contemporary Indian Fiction

    by Diya Sengupta

    Having lived in Bombay, India’s maximum city for almost fifteen years now, I can confidently say that that this city never disappoints me when it comes to showing kindness. Kindness that often comes from unexpected places and creates beautiful relationships. Strange kinships are forged between the rich and the poor, both trying to eke out life and living in the busy metropolis. A city where slumdwellers thrive in shanties surrounding glittering residential towers. Where extreme poverty meets opulent neighbourhoods. While the dichotomy of urban neighbourhoods is universal, it is more pronounced in Bombay. And where one expects just the frenetic hurry of life and a mercenary attitude to the world, sudden acts of kindness appear and form strange bonds between people.

    Several months ago, when the entire country had barely recovered from the disastrous effects of the second wave of the pandemic, and a booster shot promised to keep us safe, I found myself at a local hospital in suburban Juhu to be injected with the panacea of the vaccine. I realised that the digital native in me would not have a chance at the shot. The hospital said they could not accept digital payments. I had two choices before me. Either I came back home, pick up the required cash and return to the hospital, or get the vaccine another day. Neither seemed like an exciting idea in the scorching heat and my hectic work schedule. I hoped that a good Samaritan would give me cash and I could pay them back through one of the e-wallets housed in my cell phone. But I could not be more wrong. There was not a single person responded to my desperate pleas as I paced the footpath outside the hospital drawing curious looks from passers-by. My hair was dishevelled and sweat trickling down the sides of my forehead. It is when I noticed this aged autorickshaw driver walking towards me, a look of genuine concern on his face. Hearing my story, he pulled out a five hundred rupee note from his pocket, without batting an eye. He promised to wait for me and take me back home. I thanked him profusely, but he waved his hand off, as if it were customary for him to lend money to strangers.

    I came out of the hospital to find him reading about the Russia-Ukraine war in a local newspaper. We chatted about the war while he manoeuvred his rickshaw through pothole ridden Bombay roads to drop me home. He asked me about the outcome of the war on the global economy, particularly India. And whether fuel and food prices would increase. He assumed I had all the answers and we continued talking about the war until we reached my destination. I could not help but notice a hesitation in his voice. It was a hesitation that smelt of inadequacy and ignorance, stemming from the invisible class divide of which he was deeply conscious. His questions admittedly unsettled me. I was not expecting these questions from someone like him; our conversation was not a conventional one. But there was such honesty, authenticity, and genuineness in his voice that it felt unkind not to answer his questions.

    As an incorrigible reader of fiction, I cannot help comparing experiences from my life to lives etched in fiction, particularly books about life in India that I have read recently. My unconventional conversation with the autorickshaw driver reminded me of Poonam and Megha’s unlikely friendship in Saikat Majumdar’s novel The Middle Finger, an intriguing novel that explores caste and class prejudices and how they determine the privileges of education. It shows how this divide prevented Poonam, a Catholic tribal girl from Ranchi from going to college and acquiring a formal education. She seeks to learn from Megha, an upper-class US returned professor of English at a new age liberal arts university in the suburbs of Delhi, whose home and bookshelves Poonam helps set up. But Megha refuses to teach her as she feels Poonam is far beyond the reaches of her teachability, too alien to the literary culture she represents. But this only whets Poonam’s fierce appetite for learning, and particularly her need of imaginative expression. Megha is deeply unsettled when she watches Poonam recreate stories from the Bible awkwardly and in halting English, during her Sunday church service. Her conscience pricks her when Poonam at the end of the service publicly acknowledges and thanks Megha for being her teacher. Megha’s initial reluctance and unconscious unkindness towards Poonam turning into respect, admiration, and awe as she begins to understand her, has been movingly narrated in The Middle Finger. To Poonam, Megha was the bridge between books, and poetry and the world outside.

    In India, in fiction and life alike, class remains one of the biggest dividers of humanity, and hence, one of the most unrelenting deterrents of human kindness. That day, I gave my learned autorickshaw driver ten times the fare, money that would allow him to go home early, not having to look for passengers in Bombay’s unyielding summer heat, even have a home-cooked meal. We parted ways. Our eyes were moist, and our trust in humanity was restored.

    Life has sprung such characters for me, in reality and in fiction, as tender caresses of kindness. I can never forget Mr. Yadav, an elderly man with a lanky build standing on bowlegs, a dirty rag of a loin cloth clung to his reed thin body. He had taken upon himself the backbreaking task of clearing a football field of grass, grass that has grown wilder in Bombay’s pounding rains. Every morning during my hour-long walks around the periphery of this field I would see him bent low equipped with a blunt hand sickle, making neat bales of the freshly cut grass. One morning when I stopped to ask him about his work and his family, he became emotional. He said he was an immigrant who had moved to Bombay from a village in Uttar Pradesh when he was merely twelve and had been doing odd jobs in Bombay since then. During our chat he confessed that he had not spoken to his family back at his village since his phone had been stolen and asked me if my cell phone had free outgoing calls, and whether he could call his daughter in his village. I gave him the phone and told him to talk for as long as he wanted while I finished my rounds. The happiness on his face just made my day, and so I decided to buy him a new phone.

    Just like Mr. Yadav, I too am an immigrant who moved to Bombay during the late 2000s from a different city, in search for better opportunities. In a way, he and I are no different. And I could feel his pain of living away from family. This kinship, camaraderie and fellowship that is born among immigrants and refugees has been portrayed beautifully by Sonal Kohli in The House Next to the Factory. It is a novel that explores isolation, instability, and poverty of refugees living in post-partition, and post anti-Sikh riots Delhi. It is about Yamuna’s friendship with Pushpa, two friends from Lahore who lost touch during the partition only to be reunited unceremoniously after two decades in a nondescript tailoring shop in old Delhi. Pushpa is the now poor friend who survives on the kindness and goodwill of Yamuna and other similar souls – sometimes a hand-me-down saree, food, perhaps an old shawl to keep warm during biting chilly days and nights. Pushpa and those like her survived on such donations.

    But not at all kindness flows like a fountain of joy. Sometimes they become immersed in unfashionable ideas, ideas that were supposed to be derided ages ago, yet thrive like trees growing through cracks in dilapidated buildings, growing larger and stronger, threatening to bring the structure down. It is a world where strong women must suffer at the hands of brutally powerful men, within patriarchal notions that transcends geography, time, class, caste, and religion. It is a resurgent world where feminists wielding an iron spine are not spared before entitled men. These women have no choice but to continue to live and struggle against this characteristic male privilege.

    Anukrti Upadhyay’s novella Bhaunri follows its namesake protagonist, the young, fearless, brave, and headstrong Bhaunri as she struggles to survive, first as a daughter and then as a daughter-in-law in the patriarchy-stricken Lohar tribe in a village in Rajasthan. Bhaunri is bold and fearless in her love, lust, and passion for her husband Bheema, the kind of love that singes and threatens to destroy you. Yet she is unable to make the straying Bheema fall in love with her nor give her the respect that she deserves either as a woman or a wife. Her love and kindness towards him is rewarded with infidelity, philandering and violence. Not only does the ill-tempered Bheema cheat on her with several other women, but he also questions her knowledge and intelligence when she shows ignorance to some of the fables and myths of the land that he has grown up with, particularly when she says that she hadn’t heard about Vishwakarma, the divine architect of masons, carpenters, goldsmiths, blacksmiths and all those people who are skilled in the crafts. What I loved about Bhaunri is how the author has depicted the characters, both men and women as people possessing several layers of personality. The author has sensitively and powerfully depicted Bhaunri, a woman devastated when her husband deserts her. The characters can make a reader emotionally ambivalent towards them, with love and hate coexisting. The author has brilliantly chiselled the destructive powers of obsessive love and desire between individuals not bound by the ties of blood.

    Just like Bhaunri dealt with kindness and love that turned obsessive, the kindness in Saikat Majumdar’s The Firebird was like a nine-headed Hydra, their poisonous breaths and virulent blood destroying the most visceral of relationships. The Firebird, a novel set in Calcutta during the eighty’s made my head reel from the shock of it all. Ori, the young protagonist’s vision of how life as he knows it changes with the actions of adults around him, particularly his mother. Strangers wanting to unearth gossip about her, an actor, but in the guise of showing kindness and concern for her son, just like travellers that want to squeeze blood out of a stone in their quest of enjoyment. It is a kindness that is insidious but at the same time venomously overbearing, one that pulled away the carpet of stability from beneath Ori’s young and insecure feet. The happenings of other people’s lives was oxygen for these strangers, ‘goons’ from the local political party. Without interfering in their neighbours’ life, they would die. They bullied Ori, kind of maliciously. It left a gaping hole in his trust in humanity, and shaped his psychological perversion towards his mother Garima and older cousin Shruti. In the pretence of guarding him, his family and friends trample upon, and crumple Ori’s young soul. The Firebird throws open the banquet of life with many courses, from sour, to surly to bitter and cynical. It is a novel, where the humanity and kindness of a woman and a mother gets sucked into the pressures of societal standards dictated by men. Humanity has been touched by love, loss, grief, and countless struggles since time immemorial. Just like grief enters our lives in limitless ways, so does kindness. Sometimes it brings in its wake tragic pain and looks nothing like a lushly illustrated dreamy picture book. The kindness crushes its followers and leaves them incoherent. It is indeed heartening to read words of contemporary Indian writers in English who have captured various facets of love, loss, empathy, and kindness so eloquently.

    Diya lives in Bombay and works as an ESG and sustainability strategy consultant for a global strategy & consulting firm. She champions diversity & inclusion and has served as APAC chapter head of a forum for women’s leadership in her previous corporate role. Born in Durgapur, West Bengal Diya grew up across mining towns in Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh. Her writing comes from fond memories of growing up in India’s hinterlands.

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