The town of Chiplun in Konkan, where I grew up, receives a mean annual rainfall of 3412 mm. Floods are a regular annual event there, and in my innocence as a child I remember being excited at the prospect of an impending deluge. The swelling river devouring every piece of land in the low-lying town area was sightseeing stuff for us. A few people would die each year, though their deaths were never front-page news.
But then, as one grows up, many childhood myths are mercilessly shattered. Those cheerful floods of childhood mutated into monstrous deluges just one year after I started medical training. Better known to the outside world as the Day When Mumbai Stopped, the 2005 Maharashtra Floods were a turning point in my life: for the first time those I personally knew -- my own family -- were among the "affected". The flood water spread inside our house, my parents spent two nights in the crammed rooms of our upstairs neighbours, and my brother was stranded somewhere in the middle of the town.
Those two days of frantically trying to establish contact with my friends and family from my Pune hostel 250 km away were agonising, and completely changed my naive perception of natural disasters. Then a few years later I experienced another enlightening moment, and it is these two moments that turned me into a willing, reflexive donor.
"If not for anything else, it is for the hope of creating marvellous stories that we should donate... The stories that emerge are timeless tales that define the beauty of the human character."
A friend introduced me to a website named the Global Rich List: you enter your income and it tells you, well, how relatively rich you are. The website says: "...while we may not all be oil barons or oligarchs, the vast majority of us are better off than we realise. We wanted to help people see this." And see I did. Earning a (junior doctor's) salary my colleagues and I felt was extremely insufficient, I was, shockingly, among the top 1.5% richest people in the world! Besides, a Times of India 'Income Calculator' placed me among the richest 0.53% Indian households. In other words, when I was just 26 years old, 99% of my country and 98% of the planet were "poorer" than me. It showed me how fortunate I was and dispelled the illusion of "I'm not wealthy enough to donate". It was a profound realisation.
Anyone who is reading and understanding this, i.e., anyone who uses the Internet and is English-literate, is also most likely in the same category. Each of us has more resources than the remaining vast majority of the world. Most of us live in fairly safe regions: unlike Kashmir, where what the world understands as "normal life" is almost non-existent; or Syria, where "over 12 million people are in need of aid to stay alive". We are like Ranbir Kapoor's character in the movie Rockstar, where he, in a funny scene, laments how his life has been a smooth ride all along: "I never starved for food...never met with any big accident...and even my parents are still alive."
Some days back, on April 25 2015, thousands of Nepalis lost forever their ability to say these very words. News reports each day are telling us about extensive destruction and deepening challenges. For a country whose total GDP is 25 times less than the annual revenues of Wal-Mart, the road to recovery will be daunting. This is actually what most lay people are unaware of: affected persons remain in need of help for months and sometimes years after the disaster phases out of "breaking news". For instance, even six months after Cyclone Hudhud destroyed the city of Visakhapatnam, people there are still "picking up the pieces".
" [I]t perhaps makes more sense to describe our life trajectories in terms of how much more we give now than before, instead of how much more we now possess."
Immediately after the Nepal earthquake, news channels were inundated with details about the impact and destruction. Many of us started ignoring them after an initial interest, which perhaps is natural. Many of us also, however, ignored the ardent calls by people and organisations to "Donate for Nepal" -- something which probably requires introspection.
What touches us most as humans, more than numbers and statistics and big-picture analyses, are stories. If not for anything else, it is for the hope of creating marvellous stories that we should donate -- to Nepal now, and to any and every other community in need in the future. The stories that emerge are timeless tales that define the beauty of the human character: a beauty that, interestingly, is catalysed by money although engendered by altruism. Stories like that of the old diabetic woman living to see her grandkid because our donations helped provide her life-saving insulin; of the young boy/girl saved from being orphaned and a likely life of crime/exploitation because our aid money made possible the life-saving surgery of his/her surviving parent; of the mother and father of two saved from permanent indebtedness and depression because we, through our fundraising, helped them rebuild their home. And while the cynical mind focuses on the potential for corruption in aid, one only needs a slight commonsensical nudge to realise how foolish it would be to condemn lakhs of innocent individuals because of a few dozen thugs.
When I was a 14-year-old boy in 2001, the devastating Gujarat earthquake happened. I vaguely remember some volunteers coming over and urging us to donate, and the most my parents could give were a few old blankets and clothes. Last week, 14 years later, when my Nepali friend told me about the relief agencies working in Nepal, I was able to donate more than that. It was very satisfying. I also realised it perhaps makes more sense to describe our life trajectories in terms of how much more we give now than before, instead of how much more we now possess.