Rehman, a barely literate cycle-rickshaw driver in a small city in India, decided to take Salim, his 12 years old son, on a visit to the Dargah (a Sufi Islamic shrine built over a saint’s grave) of a highly revered saint on that saint’s Urs (death anniversary). The Dargah was in a big city about 1,500 kilometres away, but there was a convenient train connection. Rehman’s neighbour, who had visited the Dargah a few years earlier, informed Rehman that they could stay at Suleiman Dormitory near the railway station, a few kilometres away from the Dargah.
Asha, the daughter of Prof. Rao, an internationally renowned social scientist, lived in the same big city where the Dargah was located. After completing her Ph.D. from the University, she was now an Economics lecturer. Her husband, Gopal, an electronics engineer with a Ph.D. from a prestigious US university, had returned to India after teaching in USA for a few years, and was an Associate Professor at the prestigious engineering institute in the city.
Prof. Rao’s family had been Rehman’s customers from the time Asha had entered kindergarten. Apart from ferrying Asha from home to school and back, Rehman was a kind of ‘Man Friday’ to Prof. Rao and his wife. They trusted him completely, and he was fiercely loyal to the couple and their daughter.
After booking the train tickets, Rehman telephoned Asha. “Asha, I’m Rehman speaking. Salim and I will be in your city from the 13th evening to the 16th morning to visit the Dargah. We would like to meet you and Gopal for a few minutes on the 14th or 15th evening to give you your favourite mithai (sweets) from Ganesh Mithai Shop. Which day, and what time, would be convenient?”
Asha replied, “Rehman, unless you have compelling reasons to stay elsewhere, you must stay at our house. It’s only about 5 kilometres from the Dargah, and there are frequent buses both ways. Unfortunately, 14th and 15th are both working days for Gopal and me, otherwise we would have come along with you.”
Rehman quickly replied, “Asha, we will stay at Suleiman Dormitory near the railway station. We will meet you on the 14th evening or the 15th evening, whichever is convenient to you and Gopal.”
“Rehman, you must stay with us. If you stay anywhere else, please do not even bother to meet us,” Asha said. The finality in her tone was unmistakeable!
Rehman and Salim stayed at Asha’s and Gopal’s house from the evening of the 13th to the morning of the 16th. They were treated like any other guest. That is, they slept in the guest bedroom, had their meals along with Asha and Gopal, and had access to the main door keys so that they could leave the house and return according to their convenience. In short, the upper middle class, English-speaking, highly educated professors had treated the poor, non-English-speaking, almost illiterate cycle-rickshaw driver as their equal!
Most of us fight against those forms of inequality only when they are at a disadvantage. We do not seem to be bothered about those forms of inequality where we have the upper hand.
For example, men belonging to ‘lower caste’ families may fight against caste inequality, but may condone or perhaps practise gender discrimination against the women in their families.
Or women belonging to ‘upper caste’ families may fight against gender inequality, but may condone or perhaps practise caste discrimination against other women and men.
Do we all genuinely try to behave and speak respectfully with people who are economically weaker than us, such as domestic help, watchman, liftman, driver, etc.?
Don’t many of us look down on people whose knowledge of English is not as good as ours, and admire people whose knowledge of English is better than ours?
Why can’t those of us who fight against those forms of inequality where we are at a disadvantage, also fight against all those forms of discrimination where we have the upper hand?
Why can’t we all try to be like Asha and Gopal?
I had sent the draft of this post to Asha and Gopal for their approval. They replied as follows:
“We are really touched that you remembered this story and consider it worthy of Blog Action Day 2014. Just one comment:
By ‘being at a disadvantage’, what you mean is ‘being the affected party’ and by ‘having an upper hand’, what you mean is being in a superior or more powerful position, but it is this ‘at a disadvantage – upper-hand’ frame which is itself the issue. Within this frame, one can never grow out of this attitude except to be politically correct or to feel good. It is only a relation of friendship, trust and real concern for the other that makes any relationship mutual and therefore equal. To this extent, Rehman has always overwhelmed us and we feel that we cannot measure up to his graciousness and generosity.
The traditional example of an equal relationship is the friendship between Sudama and Krishna, where friendship is all that matters and, even in need, Sudama does not expect anything!”