On my way to work every morning, I notice a man standing at the same signal. As soon as he sees the cars stopping, he begins his journey on his crutches towards every window, hoping to gain at least a Rs 10 note from someone. These cars were literally his window to a chance for a better life.
He has this habit of tapping on the car windows incessantly to attract people’s attention. I usually sigh in frustration when it’s my turn. The tapping sound is just adding to the noise pollution of Karachi’s chaotic traffic. On other days, I am completely oblivious to him because my nose is usually buried in a book or my phone.
But yesterday was different. When the man in the crutches was coming towards me, I finally noticed him. It felt as though I was seeing for the first time. As I watched his motions carefully, I looked at the other people he approached. They were all blankly staring ahead, completely unaware of him.
This led me to wonder: Why have we become so immune? What has led us to this state of mind? A needy man or woman is standing several inches away from us and we don’t even give them a second glance. A third of Pakistan’s population is living below the poverty line and many of us don’t even have the audacity to look at them.
Personally, this was a completely new experience. Growing up in Saudi Arabia, I would never see beggars on the streets. This isn’t because poverty doesn’t exist at all in the country as most people think.
Obviously, the percentage is drastically different if you compare it with Pakistan. Many of the migrant workers don’t receive their due salary and are sent back home in this condition. I have had several Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan maids working at my house because they were too afraid to go back to their previous job. They had no choice but to run away from their sponsors’ abuse.
I’ll admit, there have been many occasions where I found myself questioning the authenticity of the beggar. Is his injury actually real or is that painted on? Is his tone really genuine or is he repeating the same sob story to every passerby? Where will this money be spent after I hand it over? Does she really have children back home who are in desperate need of help?
But how can we really determine if they are ‘actors’ or actually in need of our help? The truth is, we can’t. I think we should start looking at things in a new perspective and leave our judgments at home.
Don’t get me wrong, it is good to question and critically think about everything. But I believe if someone is asking for your help, then you should take this as a blessing. If you have the means to provide for them, even if it is with something small, then you should. You may have the ability to change someone’s fate entirely.
This is not to say that nobody is helping the needy. There are many excellent organizations and individuals who are putting their tireless efforts into doing so. But it is the general attitude I have noticed on the streets of Karachi that is bothering me.
Our nonchalant attitudes reminds me of the German sociologist Georg Simmel’s 1903 essay, ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’, in which he compared the urban and rural communities culture. The city life makes us more rational and less emotional in comparison to towns and villages where there is a more close-knit community. Think about it: how many of us even know who our next door neighbours are?
Although Simmel wrote the essay over a century ago, it still rings true till this very day. Urban life is incredibly fast paced and everyone is running on a certain clock. We are all in the rat race of earning more money and don’t have much time to expend our energies on community related activities.
Checking the time to see if we can finally leave from work or seeing if it is time for that meeting or appointment are all part of our daily routines. My father has the habit of constantly looking at the time, even while in conversation with someone. We are all running in this constant chain in the metropolis.
This is how we have adopted a blasé attitude, which means many of us are indifferent towards something we have experienced so many times before. We often find ourselves having interactions that are shorter since we are in a constant rush. Most of the time, I find it incredibly difficult to meet my friends in Karachi because of how busy everyone is in their lives.
When I was living in Dubai, it was difficult to form personal and emotional relationships with anyone. People generally had a rational attitude and would normally meet for a specific purpose. If you gained something out of the interaction, you would invest more energy and time into it.
I remember going to a meet and greet of a photographer who was visiting and everyone attending the event was only interested in promoting their brands to gain recognition.
The Instagram meetups I attended were also only involved in people gaining new followers on their page and promoting themselves. The interactions I had with people were mainly superficial because this is the norm of the urban psyche; it will always be centered around the money economy.
I honestly don’t know what the solution is to develop a deeper understanding of communal importance in urban society. But what I do know is that we have to take baby steps to create a change. It isn’t going to happen over night, nor should we expect it to.
So, the next time you are parking your car – go and ring your neighbour’s doorbell just to ask them if everything is alright. When that same beggar you see every morning is walking by, stop for a second to look him or her in the eye and smile. Even if you don’t shell out some cash to give them, at least take notice of them.
Similar to roots, small differences will grow into the many branches that will help in spreading positivity and close connections within our communities until we are as sturdy as a tree.