A Tale of Two Cities
Assisting the migrants, daily wage earners and the domestic workers to live under COVID
The year is 1955. In La Martiniere, a school in Calcutta founded in 1836 by a French mercenary, Major General Claude Martin, Military Advisor to the Nawab of Avadh, two 4 year-old boys become friends. Michael and Philip. Their friendship goes through the usual turbulence of adolescence and comes out stronger as they become young men. They then go different ways- one to study Engineering in Chennai and the other Political Science in Delhi. They lose touch. Then they reconnect 50 years later, in 2018, at the 50th Anniversary gathering of their passing out of school. Two erstwhile children, now grown men, shyly acknowledging the years that passed in between during the brief time of the reunion and renewing their friendship, now matured over the years. One a successful businessman settled in San Bernadino, California, and President of Nobel Systems, and the other, who followed a different drummer, who left his travel agency business and sports and social life to seek God, who became a priest of the Indian Orthodox Church, and who retired in Bengaluru to start an NGO - ‘The Untouchables’ .
Cut to May, 2020, and COVID is at its deadly best. The world struggling to come to terms with the virus’ lethal power and science’s seeming inability to deal with it. In Bengaluru, the Silicone Valley of India, nothing is different. All around is hopelessness and fear. Not just of catching the virus but dying of starvation because of loss of jobs and earnings. Too many questions- no one seems to know the answers. Daily wage earners are the most hit. Migrants who had left their homes, both in Karnataka and in other states, in search of a ‘decent life’ - suddenly left out in the cold. No jobs, no income, and a COVID lockdown which has been extended for another 2 weeks. News of families trekking 800 km to reach home, news of being stopped at state borders and being asked to make the arduous journey back. Fearful rumours. In their shanties and slum houses they live, waiting for good news, getting none. Despair written on their faces. Men who had promised to protect and feed their families and could not. Widows who were eking out a living as domestic help or as coolies at construction sites, now dealing with hungry, squalling children. Bengalis and Jharkandis living in shanties and tin sheds, who could only remember the warmth of their homes and families far away - unable to work, unable to go back home. One common denominator bound them all, Fear - the fear of contagion, the fear of the loss of income, the fear of an unknown tomorrow.
Michael and Philip speak with each other on the phone. Nobel Systems is concerned and would like to support the work being done on a small scale by The Untouchables among the have-nots. They will pay US$ 1000 to help. Plans are made. Volunteers start mapping out 3 slums in the Maruthi Farms area, to locate the needy. Many are asking help, and some questions are being asked to locate the genuine ones at the bottom of the order. Lists are finalized. Quotations are taken from 3 stores to get the best prices and quality for the dry rations to be given to them. The store finally selected is owned by Muslims, and they are happy to give specially low prices as it their month of Ramzan, where the ‘zakat’, a kind of alms giving, a religious obligation, is expected of the Muslim faithful, to mitigate the suffering of all humanity. Muslim and Christian and Hindu, all coming together, a small attempt to stem the tide of hopelessness and fear that stalked the nation. That is India!
On Sunday May 3rd, 2020, a team of 13 volunteers for The Untouchables gather together to finalise plans for the day. Masks and rubber gloves are distributed. A van arrives, and a policeman deputed by the thana to ensure that there would be a peaceful distribution. The team goes in to action by 10.30 am. Within two hours, 71 homes have been given hope in the form of a packet containing a week of dry rations for the families and for bachelors living together. Delivered to their doors.
There would be 71 stories that day from each of those hutments we visited, if we had the time and ability to tell them. Heart rending stories. Not only those stories told in words by the occupants, but also those that came from the sights we saw upon entering their homes, their lack of furniture, their innocent children, their squalid surroundings. But that day, both the volunteers who delivered and the recipients in their huts were infused with faith in their god/s and in humanity. On that day, hope once more pounded in their hearts. Hope, not just about the food that the package promised, though that was definitely a plus point, but more from the idea that humanity still prevails, that humans can and do come together in the face of difficulties and hardships; that the stronger do step down to help the weaker-it is not a jungle. Genuine smiles replaced the fear. The world may end, but not before humanity had a say, the wolf was kept at bay, and the recipients found strength to face another day. For a short time, the sun shone through the despair, and love brought in its stead, hope and faith.
Far away in San Bernadino, California, USA, as its citizens prepared for bed that night, unknowing of the miracle Nobel Systems had wrought in the lives of some people in far away Bengaluru, India, two friends, separated by thousands of miles, in two cities, sighed and smiled to themselves and wondered who to thank - Major Claude Martin, or the teachers who had instilled them with the idea that it was right to protect the weak and downtrodden? But the overjoyed people in Maruthi Farms slum, Kempapura, Bengaluru, if they knew, would only say, “Thank You, Nobel Systems”.