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The Joy of an Empty Wallet

As her weary eyes met mine, silently pleading, she gestured with her right hand, a desperate plea for help.
The Joy of an Empty Wallet by Sacaria Joseph
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It was a misty December evening in 2013, the hands of my wristwatch inching closer to 10 pm. The clamour and commotion of the day had slowly dissipated from the streets of Kolkata, yielding a quieter atmosphere. Even in the middle of December, the city’s settling winter had to assert its presence. With a sense of urgency, I made my way down Mother Teresa Sarani, in downtown Kolkata, heading towards the comfort of my home. As I reached Allen Park, I turned right onto Camac Street, my destination drawing nearer with each step.

On Camac Steet, the torrent of noise and movement during the day had now settled into the hush of night. The flow of traffic had diminished to a mere trickle, and the bustling sidewalks were eerily deserted. Only some persistent street vendors remained, diligently packing up their goods as their lively chatter faded into the background. It was as if the very spirit of Kolkata’s streets was winding down, cloaked in a hush as the city drifted off to sleep.

As I walked along the sidewalk of Camac Street, just a dozen or so steps into my journey, my attention was abruptly seized by the sight of a woman holding a baby, being driven away from the ramshackle eatery stationed within a makeshift lean-to. “Get away. This isn’t a social center. No free food here,” admonished one of the three men who operated the eatery. From these words of admonition, I realized that she was begging for food.

With my feet glued to the pavement, I watched transfixed as the woman emerged from the shadows of the ramshackle eatery, whimpering. Youthful yet etched with hardship, her slender frame slumped beneath the weight of the cheap sari clinging to her weathered skin. From her style of draping the sari, very different from what is usually found in Kolkata, it seemed as if she was from Maharashtra, evidently from its rural hinterland. I wondered what stories lay behind that vulnerable appearance.

As her weary eyes met mine, silently pleading, she gestured with her right hand, a desperate plea for help. I extended an invitation to her to accompany me back to the eatery that had rejected her.It’s not just me and my child,” without any trace of hesitation she said, “there are others. Relatives, friends … hungry … searching food about the place.”

“Alright,” I said without a second thought, “why don’t you gather them all together?”

With a determined nod, she hurried off, her voice calling out across the street. Moments later, she returned, followed by a ragtag group of fourteen – men, women, and children, their faces marked with exhaustion, hunger, and a trace of hope.

As I surveyed the assembly of unfamiliar faces, all bound together by their desperate search for food, a whirlwind of bewilderment stirred within me. “So many of you?!” I exclaimed, taken aback by the sheer number of the group. My tone, laden with disbelief, inadvertently echoed my silent question: Why were so many begging for food at this place, at this late hour?

The woman I met initially answered, “We’ve journeyed from Maharashtra seeking employment in Kolkata. A man from a neighboring village facilitated our trip, himself having worked in Kolkata for years. He assured us of opportunities in road construction, promising to meet us at Howrah railway station. But to our dismay, he wasn’t there upon our arrival! He never gave us his phone number, and we are unaware of his whereabouts. Left without employment, shelter, or money, we resorted to begging for sustenance and money to return home. Someone mentioned the possibility of work in another part of the city, leading us to Camac Street. However, we could find no possibility of finding work here. While many people offered us food, no one provided financial assistance.”

Torn between the cold whispers of skepticism and warm pleas of compassion, I wrestled with the truth of the woman’s story, both unbelievable and heartbreaking. While skepticism kept whispering about potential deception, compassion kept urging me to help the seemingly vulnerable souls before me.

However, I decided to silence the skeptic within, and chose compassion instead. After all, the worst that could happen to me was deception by strangers; but if I did not help them, and their ‘story’ were indeed true, I could never forgive myself. I gave them the benefit of doubt, purchased dinner for them, and sat with them on the sidewalk of Camac Street, listening to their tales of hardship as they enjoyed their meal. The eldest-looking man among them shared their keenness to return to their village in Maharashtra, despite knowing that it meant returning to a life of poverty. Another person chimed in, emphasizing that a life of penury was undoubtedly more honourable than a life of beggary.

Feeling deeply for them, I thought it my duty to help them reach their humble homes back safely. Since I did not have sufficient cash in hand, I requested a friend of mine to come over to Camac Street to lend me some cash, which he gladly did. I handed them over the amount (enough to cover their train fare and a few days’ expenses) they said they would require to reach home. I also purchased samosas, kachoris, and roti and got them packed for their journey. They told me that they would be heading towards Howrah railway station right away. As I took leave of them, one of them asked me how they could thank me. My response was simple: “Pay it forward. When you encounter someone in need, offer them a helping hand in your own way.” Then, with a heart full of joy, I hurried home, my wallet now empty but my spirit lifted – the joy of an empty wallet …!

About half a year later, I was walking along CIT Road in central Kolkata one day, when a young man approached me, cradling a baby in his arms. He explained that he needed money to return to his remote village in Maharashtra, and asked if I could give him some. His request caught me off guard; as we conversed, he told me how he and his relatives had been deceived by someone promising them jobs in Kolkata. When I inquired about the whereabouts of his other relatives, he gestured towards a group of people begging across the road – the entire scenario an exact repetition of the Camac Street episode earlier.

As I stood on the sidewalk of the street, grappling with the young man’s plea for help, a tumult of conflicting emotions surged within me. Memories of my encounter on Camac Street flooded back into my mind, intertwining with doubts and uncertainty. Was the Camac Street episode a fraudulent one designed to exploit my compassion, or was it a genuine, desperate cry for help? Was I being presented with another fabricated tale of hardship on CIT Road, or another cry for help?

As the weight of the Camac Street episode began to bear down on me, the sceptic in me got the better of me this time. My fear of being deceived overshadowed any consideration of genuine human vulnerability, and the need to go out of my way to help others in need. “Listen, I’ve been fooled once, and I won’t be fooled again,” I told the young man, and walked away, feeling upset, angry, and confused. The lingering shadows of doubt and uncertainty from Camac Street haunted my steps, prompting me to question if my skepticism was suffocating my compassion and humanity. I found myself grappling with the uncertainty of whether I had become wiser through deceit or grown indifferent to the plight of the vulnerable, callously turning a blind eye to their cries for help.

I couldn’t shake off the memory of my empty wallet from the previous December. Once a symbol of altruism and compassion, it now seemed tainted by doubt, uncertainty, and self-reproach. The cherished emptiness of my wallet no longer brought a sense of fulfillment; instead, it served as a stark reminder of the complexities of human nature and the challenge of navigating the blurred lines between empathy and cynicism.

As I quickened my pace, it became increasingly clear to me that genuine compassion and generosity do exist in and around the bustling streets of Kolkata, but they are frequently intertwined with manipulation, exploitation, and deception. In the liminal spaces of the cityscape, where the lines between skepticism and compassion blur, individuals are faced with the daunting task of distinguishing between genuine need and blatant opportunism. Yet, amidst this complex interplay, there are some who choose to extend a helping hand, at the risk of being exploited and deceived. It is in these acts of kindness and solidarity that the true soul of Kolkata reveals itself … my city teems with contradictions yet pulsates with the beating heart of humanity.

Sacaria Joseph is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata. Having pursued his undergraduate studies at St. Xavier’s College, he furthered his academic journey by obtaining a Master of Arts degree in English Literature from Pune University, a Master of Philosophy from Jadavpur University, Kolkata, and a PhD from Visva-Bharati University, West Bengal. In addition to his academic pursuits, he writes on a wide array of subjects encompassing literature, philosophy, religion, culture, cinema, politics, and the environment.

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