Friday, December 07, 2007

Dining with the Untouchables

When I was in my twenties, I always dreamt of being invited to dinner with some powerful people. Wouldn’t it be great to be present at some banquet where you would be introduced to a president of some company who then, would recognize your talent and offer you a great job or some business opportunity? How about meeting a powerful politician and sharing a dinner table with him or her? My friends would think of me as being high class and it would do wonders for my life, wouldn’t it? How about a power lunch with an investor who would finance my business with a million bucks? I would always dream of such things.

Somehow, my life put me in another direction where, through some strange quirks of destiny I would be the one hosting power lunches for the lowest of the low- jaded and over-aged Asian prostitutes, whole gangs of hungry unemployed workers, and, finally, for the members of probably the most wretched people on earth- those of the Indian caste of the Untouchables.

You can see those people anywhere in India- sleeping on the streets, begging in front of temples, or working the most menial jobs such as cleaning the fecal masses in toilets or taking out the garbage. Few people care about them or want to be around them. Most will not even touch them lest they be marred by the contact with these untermenchen. Their villages are notoriously poor with no running water, no toilets and very little food. People from higher casts usually do not bother visiting those.

So, how about something infinitely more satisfying than sitting on the edge of a table with powerful people glaring at you condescendingly and you lapping up every word they say? How about you doing what I did- organizing dinners for the untouchables in Delhi or the Bihar region of India. You see, as far as many of these people are concerned, you are the angel from heaven, the powerful businessman and politician and they will be sitting at your table now lapping up every word you say, but more so, every morsel f food that you have graciously delivered upon them.

While in the Bihar region of India last year, I went through several villages where I was simply appalled by the living conditions in the place and I decided to do something about it. After I had made some friends with the people there, I was approached at my hotel by a “delegation” of children who asked me for help. They did not want anything fancy- just some books for their school: a Hindi-English dictionary, arithmetic text books, and if I could , a soccer ball so that they could hold some matches there. I was happy to oblige and the whole thing cost me a bit over $60 but you should have seen what happened in the village. It was like the event of the year: the kids had all lined up and with gleaming faces received the books as their names were called. They looked as honored as if they were being knighted by Her Majesty the Queen. The person in charge of the school thanked me profusely, and I would be kissed on the cheek every five minutes. After this, everywhere I went I was greeted with a loud and joyful “Namaste!” (Hello) by the members of the village.

On the following day, my translator and I went to buy two sacks of lentils and rice. We proceeded to another village populated by more Untouchables and went from house to house delivering the foods. You should have seen the happy faces of the villagers. And the joy in my heart was immense. The feeling that you had people that needed your help and the fact that you could do something for humanity was much more profound than the supposed joy you feel when being given a promotion or being invited to dinner with the rich and the famous.

The greatest repast of my life was when I collected a group of hungry, old beggars at a local temple and invited them all to dine at a local restaurant. That was a feast to behold. I never felt so good and so honored.

Once I had a layover in Manila, and was sitting on the parapet overlooking the Manila Bay, and as is always the case with foreigners, a crowd of people slowly began gathering around me. Unlike in some other Asian countries, where people will shrink away from a white man, in the Philippines, they will approach you and try to get to know you. Soon, there were some thirteen people around me, a motley crew, vendors, students, unemployed workers. We chatted and then, I invited them all to dinner at a local Chinese restaurant. It was quite expensive and only the local middle class to rich people could afford to dine there. And then we walked it. It was a great feast. The people were obviously very hungry. After we had finished out $50 dinner, the thinks and the blessing I received from them were profound. It was obviously their first visit to such a place. They had a dinner with one of the rich and famous- me.

There were no job offers after the power dinner and no useful contacts made. There were plenty of blessings heaped upon my head by the people. “May you be blessed, may God bless you, may he give you a long life”. It was enough for me.

So, next time, do not think which rich and important person will invite me to his dinner party. Think instead- which unfortunate, poor, abandoned persons whom nobody cares about will I invite to my dinner tonight.

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