He said I had no heart. I refused him bread.
I had just finished a cup of coffee and was buying sweet bread and curd to take back to my two dollar a night Calcutta hotel room when he approached and started telling me in an oblique way that he had no money. As I finished my purchase and was about to leave he came out with it and asked me to buy him bread. I said no. He replied that he was not asking for a hundred dollars, just a small loaf of bread, eight or ten rupees.
I looked at him closely. About sixteen or seventeen years old, strong, healthy looking, all his limbs, not the usual reeking, scabrous infirmities one sees on the endless procession of Indian beggars that harangues one throughout the day. Not even thin or undernourished; a bit shabby, obviously down and out but not any more so than ninety-five percent of the other inhabitants of the neighborhood. Again I said no.
His eyes blazed. Hate or hunger? He was angry and I was irritated. Irritated for being put in this position again; irritated because I was being detained and had things to do; irritated because he thought that I was rich when I was living close to the edge myself; irritated because he asked for so little to keep body and soul together and I knew that what he asked for would not help him one wit; and irritated because there was absolutely nothing I could really do for him except buy him a piece of bread which would not solve his problem.
I turned to go and bumped into an enormous fat lady wrapped in a diaphanous pink sari whose eight yards of cloth was unable to conceal her massive mounds of quivering flesh. Fat slob, I thought as I apologized, a dainty, dancing hippopotamus out of Walt Disney’s Fantasia. Another twice born, no doubt, carrying her poundage like so much gold from her last incarnation, snug in the belief that the gods have favored her by bequeathing favors denied to others because she deserves them. And what does she do with them? Stuffs herself.
I took a deep breath. My irritation was reaching its peak and I didn’t want to blow it. Just get out of here, I said to myself, get back to your room, you’ve had enough of this wretched city and its people for one day.
“A few Rupees! Why don’t you buy me bread?” It was more of a demand than a question, a command rather than an appeal. I turned around and looked him in the eye.
“A few Rupees?” I said. “Do you know how many times a day I’m asked for a few Rupees? I’m not rich. As a matter of fact, strange as it might seem to you, I’m poor and have to count my money like everyone else. Get a rickshaw, shine shoes, sell newspapers or dope, use your imagination but stop bugging me and every other westerner who saves his pennies so he can visit this god-forsaken country. I’m a guest here; you ought to be feeding me.” With that I turned and walked off. Hardhearted bastard, I thought to myself.
The next day I passed him on the street.
“You have no heart”, he said as he walked by.
“No heart”, I mumbled to myself as I continued down the garbage-strewn cobblestones, still pungent with the effluvium of the day’s offerings that its residents deposit in the open gutters outside their hovel doors.
No heart. What is it inside of me that bleeds for you and every other empty, aching belly and outstretched hand in this miserable land? What is it that cries at the sight of bloated and emaciated children picking through refuse heaps for a mouthful of someone’s discarded swill? What is it that screams at the inequity and venality of a lopsided and lunatic system that allows its people to slowly starve a thousand deaths as it polishes a bomb it claims is there to protect the very people it’s killing? Better to drop it on them and rid yourself of the problem, stop your moral masturbation and make it easier for all concerned. You have cut the testicles off your men; why not kill off your beggars?
I have a heart, my friend. My problem is I have too much heart. If I had no heart I would buy you the bread you so need, salve my conscience, soothe my guilt and walk away feeling generous and holy, smug with the pride of having given to my less fortunate brother, despicable though he may be – though that, of course, makes the act even more holy, more righteous since it’s so difficult to do.
So what to do?
Shall I give you my few rupees, you beggars and thieves? Shall I give you my shirt? Shall I carry it to its logical conclusion and join you, entwine my starving body with yours so we can both die on the street? If I had the faintest, the tiniest, the most embryonic belief or hope that it would help you, I would. But the world would just laugh and shake its head as it has since Christ and Gandhi did that very thing. It would do no good; it has done no good in the past and will do no good in the future unless you are of one mind and one heart, Mother Teresa notwithstanding.
So I don’t feed you, my brother. But maybe by my refusal I give you another kind of nourishment, maybe I implant in you that seed of anger that can one day soon grow into a fully blown hate; a hate for injustice, a hate for intolerance, a hate for apathy; a hate for all things that are robbing you of what is rightfully yours; a hate for the greed of your elected officials whose consciousness is but an extension of our own; a hate for the callousness, arrogance and indifference of the rich for the poor, the white for the black; a hate for all things that keep you in your chains and your bellies empty; a hate to get the fires burning that will destroy the prejudice and superstitions that keep you locked in the world of hopeless illusion, a world of your own making.
And we can’t blame them either because them is us, another version of yourself that was subjected to the same machine, the same conditioning process, the same fear and ignorance. You are responsible for your own lives, your own empty bellies and for the changes that must come about to fill those bellies. And you who are so strong, so young and seething with energy are the ones that should be making those changes, not the old men who sit sleeping and farting in congress. It matters not if you or I die in the process, what matters is your awareness of the freedom that has been sucked from you and your willingness to reclaim that freedom at whatever cost.
Don’t wait for the white man, the rich man, the Brahmin, the corporations and government to suck your completely dry. Are you going to continue to forfeit your freedom to your keepers who have no intention of granting you equality? Do you believe you are on a lower rung of the karmic and evolutionary ladder as your master’s claim? Do you believe that you deserve your miserable existence? Do you believe you were born hungry and must die hungry in order to expiate your past sins and return as a fat man? If you believe it, so be it, because you are what you believe you are, be it beggar or god man. But don’t delude yourself that the white man or the rich man is your superior in any way, shape or form. They are not and way down in the depths of their blackest of black hearts they know they are not. They are afraid and they are clever and they are guilty before God and the whole world, and they know it as much as they try to deny it and sweep it into the folds of their “cultivated” indifference. They tremble with fear yet their pride and arrogance continues to sow hatred and greed throughout the world.
Your must set fire to this world of their making for they will never relinquish it willingly. They have no solutions for the sickness they have foisted upon their fellowman, no remedy for the emasculation and vampirization of their weaker brother. They are criminals, gangsters intent only on fulfilling their own appetites and desires. Make puja before the alter of your own dignity, not tin gods, politicians and educated nincompoops who pretend to serve while stuffing their own pockets and bulging bellies.
The only thing that can fight money and power is more money and power – or blood. I would like to say spirit, love, ahimsa, metta and all the other noble ideals that man has espoused and aspired to since time began for him when the first two stood facing each other, eye to eye, and the world began to shudder, ever so slightly in the beginning but which now has become such a roar it threatens to annihilate all of us. And we, you and me, are responsible; we are the preservers as well as the destroyers and it is only by our own awareness and action that we can save ourselves.
So I don’t feed you my friend because I don’t want you to starve. I offer no solutions because I have none: every man must find his own. But I offer you my observations, for whatever they are worth, of a cancer that somehow must be cut out if you want to share in the earth’s enormous abundance. You had no choice in what you were given – God knows it wasn’t very much – but you do have a choice in what you do with what you were given.
We become beggars and thieves when we think like beggars and thieves. Mind has imprisoned you, and only you can slay your jailer, only you can knock him down and take the reins of your own life. And if you die in the process, well, at least you will no longer be hungry.
I pray, my Indian brother and sister, that I will have the strength to refuse you bread the next time we meet.
Many years have passed since that young man asked me for bread. I have thought of him often. I think of him now. He is still out there but now fully grown, still with anger, still with rage but now more focused, more determined than ever to get not only his share, either in this life or the next, but to make us, those who gave birth to his rage, his hunger, pay the price for his years of pain. His name is Godse, Osama, Yassar, Mohammad Atta; he has many names and is from many countries; sometimes he wears a turban, sometimes a baseball cap but within the folds of his garment he carries the bomb or the bullet and within his heart the bitter bile of retribution. Watch for him for he is everywhere, and let us ponder deeply the next time we are asked for bread.