In Jonathan Stone’s ebook ‘Moving Day’, senior citizens Stanley and Rose Peke are robbed of all their belongings on moving day by a team of robbers posing as a moving company.
I have been robbed a few times, but never of all my belongings like the fictional Pekes. It has happened to me twice this year already and every time I have felt deeply violated. The feeling will never leave you and it scars you for life. The character of immigrant holocaust survivor Stanley Peke in ‘Moving Day’ is so finely etched that it helped articulate my own feelings about the incidents in my life. For the first time, after reading ‘Moving Day’, I found a voice for what I had kept unexpressed and suppressed all these years.
So many bad things happen to people in my country, it feels almost like complaining to sound out such emotions. You are constantly reminded, this is India, worse things happen, be grateful you are still alive and unmolested. You start to get so desensitised that you begin to lose your humanity. It has been a slow attrition of my benevolence. I am afraid there will come a point when I will lose all the compassion I was gifted by civilisation.
Just today, I opened the newspaper to read a harrowing report about two highway robberies on the Mumbai-Pune Expressway, a road that connects us, in this spur of the Western Ghats, to the big apple of Mumbai on the Arabian Sea. This happens on a regular basis on this particular road. The robbers come from backgrounds of extreme poverty and they prey on people who have wherewithal. But these are not Robin Hood tales, the gangs when busted reveal their frustration, resentment at standing outside and looking in at the easy excesses of the new world denied to them in the neglected villages. They have found on this long road the quickest get rich scheme.
Today’s report described the boldness of the highwaymen who had their faces covered with little handkerchiefs, seemingly confident that they could get away, knowing the policemen in the area are understaffed and underpaid. They pounced on two vehicles that came to a stop on lonely bits of the highway. Older women were violently parted with their gold ornaments and wallets were snatched from the men. The victims are lucky if they escape such dime-a-dozen incidents with few physical injuries. The complete absence of mercy or compassion is what comes out in these reports.
This absence of compassion is what is noticeable everywhere in public life. At first I thought it was just an artifact of modern city living. But I was prompted by my retrenching humanity to look deeper into the culture of family itself. Outwardly, here in the cities we have a semblance of civilisation. We are superficially civil to each other, we complain about corruption and gripe about government apathy. But on closer examination the picture is skewed.
We have grown up in very internally-focused family units. We clean our homes, but are indifferent about how the neighbourhood fares, often leaving our family’s garbage on the roads outside for dogs and crows to pick through. We are taught to only look to the welfare of immediate members of the family as they are our resources, and to always view everyone else as ‘outsiders’, people from whom we gain little, ‘others’ who we strip of humanity, hence with no need for our compassion or mercy. This is very evident on our chaotic roads, where driving is a me-first exercise, few rules are obeyed in a bid to get our own way all the time with maximum aggression and assertion of might. ‘Give-way’ signs are only for the weak. And so by extension it seems, compassion is also for the weak.
This is the conclusion I came to this year. I have been picked out from the crowd and labelled weak, my politeness interpreted as feebleness, my gullibility obvious. The robbers in ‘Moving Day’ target retired couples and widows. Not many possess the determined madness of Stanley Peke to go after the thieves to retrieve their things. It was not so much about his things, he needed to retrieve his lost soul, a vital part of him lost during the holocaust in Poland when he was only seven years old.
I am, still standing. But my insecurity overwhelms me in the twilight hours just before waking. The only means I have is to write, try and regain my fortitude, and a voice. If I had been quiet it was out of a misplaced sense of stoicism and discretion. It was because I was taught to be quiet by a society complicit in the many everyday evils around it. While I railed angrily in private, defining the injustices as they happened to me in terms of black and white, I found others equivocating.
Getting robbed is so much more than about losing your money; it leaves you with no trust, a blankness of spirit and a loss of sympathy. The first time I recall so vividly…I had got up to give my seat to a ragged-looking pregnant woman in a New Delhi bus, and she thought it was the perfect opportunity to make off with most of my purse, and a piece of my humanity. I will never forget that awful sinking feeling I felt when I got home and realised I had been robbed.