By S. Shah
14 April, 2014
He had done it again, the second time that month. I had called him up, asking him if he could come that morning, but he had answered matter-of-factly, although not rudely, ‘I can’t come now. I haven’t got ready as yet. If you had informed me last night, I could have got up early and come.’
He didn’t even say he was sorry—even if he wasn’t, he could have said he was—and that made me even more upset. How could he not come? How could he not feel sorry, or at least say that he was? What cheek!
It isn’t that I ask Peri to come every day to take me around. In fact, I haven’t asked him for many favours all these fifteen years, ever since Mumma decided to pay him a monthly salary and get him to do odd-jobs for her in his auto-rickshaw. I like doing things myself if I can. Why be obliged to someone for something that one can manage on one’s own? When I choose to ask Peri to drive me around in his vehicle, I often make it a point to pay him a little more than the fare that‘s registered on the metre. And sometimes, when I’m in a generous mood (which is not rare), I give him a substantial amount more.
Mumma says I need not pay Peri when I use his services. She pays him 10 thousand a month, and he generally has breakfast, and sometimes lunch, at our place—free of cost, of course, and he eats as much as he likes. And so, she says, I shouldn’t have to feel that I need to give him any money if I don’t want to. I’m not travelling around in his auto-rickshaw every day, after all, she says. But yet I insist on paying him—as a matter of principle. Why labour under the burden of an unpaid-for favour when you can pay for it?
I know its bad manners to advertise one’s generosity, but for the sake of what this story is all about, I have to tell you a bit about what I’ve done for Peri in the past. For instance, some years ago, Peri’s son had to be hospitalized. The hospital expenses were astronomical, and Peri, whose only source of income is his auto-rickshaw, could hardly afford the cost of the treatment. When I heard about this from Mumma, my generous heart melted and I gave her a pretty big sum of money—I can’t recall how much, but it may have been 50 thousand, or even perhaps 70—which she handed to Peri as a gift from us for his child’s treatment. Of course, I never talked about it with him—I didn’t want him to feel obliged. I was quite happy to leave it at that.
That’s just one of the many things I’ve done for Peri. Over the years, I’ve helped him in other ways, too. For instance, I’ve given him clothes and bags and other things that I won’t ever wear or use, things in good, often unused, condition. And, honestly, I’ve never wanted him to bow and scrape before me in gratitude, and touch my feet and tell me how large-hearted I supposedly am.
The thought that I had done all this for Peri (as I’ve done for several other people of similar economic background) apparently without expecting anything in return (as the books on spirituality I’ve read say I ideally must) was for me a source of considerable satisfaction. It made me feel wonderful about myself—all so noble, selfless and compassionate, or so I thought. I truly believed that I wanted nothing at all in return for all that I had done. It was out of pure, unalloyed charity, deep and total empathy, so I wanted to believe. But my reaction that morning to Peri’s mumbling on the phone brutally shattered that illusion. All my giving, it forcefully struck me later that morning, had definitely not been as entirely selfless as I had all along thought it was. Had it been so, I would hardly have recoiled in horror and suppressed rage at Peri’s honest refusal to pick me up and take me around in his auto-rickshaw.
When Peri said he wouldn’t be coming, I shut the phone off, cursing him in my mind. The man was utterly mannerless and horribly ungrateful, I said to myself. After all that I’d done for him, (seemingly) without expecting anything in return, was this the way to behave? What a miserable wretch! I could have forgiven him if there were an emergency and he had what I thought was a genuine reason not to come. But how dare he refuse simply because he found it too early in the morning to step out of bed! And, then, it was hardly ‘early’—I had called him at 7:45, and had asked him if he could come by 8:15! For all that I’ve done for him, couldn’t he get himself out of bed and come over at short notice just for this one morning? I didn’t make such requests every day, after all! Couldn’t he make even that little a sacrifice for me? Was that asking for too much? And to make matters worse, he hadn’t even been apologetic about not coming. Couldn’t I expect even a half-hearted ‘sorry’ from him after all that I’ve done for him? What was the point of doing good if this was how one would be repaid?
I took another auto-rickshaw that morning, determined never to ask Peri for a favour again. I was not going to use his services if I could help it. He was certainly not the only auto-rickshaw driver in town!
Later that day, as my temper cooled off, I reflected on the way I had reacted to what had transpired that morning. At the root of my rage, I realized, was the fact that my generosity had all along been tainted with expectations. Unbeknown to me, I had been giving things and money to Peri—out of love, generosity and compassion, certainly, but at the same time also expecting that he would behave in a certain way with me. I certainly did not want him to praise me to the skies or even to reciprocate for all the money I’d given him in the form of occasional free rides in his auto-rickshaw, but I definitely did expect—and this was an amazing realization—that because of all that I had done for him, he would never refuse me, and that even if, for some reason, he was compelled to, he would be all-so-very apologetic about it. In short, I had expected, although I didn’t realise it, that Peri would be cheerfully at my beck-and-call whenever I needed him. It was not Peri’s behaviour that morning, but, rather, the fact that his behaviour did not conform to the expectations I had of him because of what I had given him that had made me all so very upset.
As I reflected on my reactions, my mind travelled to relatives, friends and acquaintances who’ve come in and out of my life, people who’ve helped me in many different ways. I had definitely not always lived up to their expectations, I was forced to admit to myself, as just as Peri hadn’t live up to mine that morning. In fact, in some cases, I’d repaid goodness and charity with rudeness and ingratitude. I shuddered when I recounted these cases—which were definitely not inconsiderable. I could hardly blame Peri for his reaction, then.
The more I mulled over what had happened that morning, the more I learnt from the incident. I saw Peri in a new light now. What had seemed to be his rudeness and ingratitude now appeared to me as admirable frankness. He had spoken his mind plainly, without hedging about, making excuses or pretending to be apologetic, as I might have done had I been in his place. In saying exactly what he wanted—saying ‘no’ when that might have caused him to lose a ‘generous’ patron—he was being true to himself, preferring honesty to insincere flattery of someone he was supposedly beholden to.
I could hardly hold that against him. In fact, this was the way I wanted to be, too—bold enough to say ‘no’ when I needed to for my own good and everyone else’s. Putting on an act and saying ‘yes’ when one wanted to say ‘no’ for fear of what others might say did no one good or truly pleased anyone at all. I hated doing that myself, but that’s what I—like most of us—did sometimes, to my disgust. That Peri didn’t stoop that low, even with someone who thought he should be obliged to him, was amazing! How I wished I could be that honest!