This is the personal story of a British girl who worked for six months in India.
There was a man who sold bananas outside the office on Tadiwala Road.
Imagine this as a typical Indian city street, full of wandering animals obstructing traffic. Children in pristine school uniforms and large square backpacks tackle the crumbling pavements with ease in their flip-flops. Rickshaw drivers banter with each other and spit over the edge of their vehicles as they jerk expertly along and heartstoppingly close to other road users. Retailers include those of electrical goods, chai, food and unidentifiable necessities and the streets heave with life in that wonderfully chaotic and yet purposeful Indian way. I, a wide-eyed and disorientated westerner, attempt to look casual amongst the throng.
One day, as I stepped outside the cool office building into the sweaty matrix of Tadiwala Road, I asked a man with a bashed-up wooden cart if I could buy a banana. He didn’t scoff at my measly purchase, instead passing a banana to me holding one finger up. I delved into my bag, but to my embarrassment, had forgotten my purse. Immediately recognising the problem, he simply made that fluid hand signal, like a camp man stopping traffic. Translation: it’s ok, pay later. I can’t remember if we spoke, I just remember his calm manner and wide grin. So, I took the banana and made a mental note and made my merry way off up the road eating it.
Before I began working for The Global Poverty Project (GPP) I lived and worked in Pune, India, for six months for an NGO called Deep Griha Society (DGS). DGS is an urban and rural development charity with an outreach of over 60,000 people in the local slum communities where it runs health, awareness and education programmes. Deep Griha is Hindi for ‘lighthouse’ and its motto is ‘in giving you receive’.
I spent my months in Pune doing the usual Westerner-working-for-NGO type of activities. I taught English to staff and children, I visited orphanages and ashrams, I co-ran drama classes at the NGO’s youth centre, assisted with self-esteem classes for dalit women at a local Buddhist centre and helped organise HIV-related rallies and awareness sessions.
I also did lots of things that Westerners do in places like India but don’t mention in international development blogs, namely taking advantage of the exchange rate in bars. I went to Goa and other holiday destinations around the country equivalent to the Indian version of Malaga. My aptitude for being culturally insensitive at times generally meant that I got the impression that I didn’t always make a very good impression on Indian people. However, Indians are expertly gracious, bestowing garlands and gifts at every opportunity to please and honour their guests, be they in their house or in their country. Paradoxically, perhaps, giving, alongside poverty, is embedded in Indian society. This notion brings me back to my story about a man and a banana.
So, after several months of do-gooding had passed by, one horrible day, in one horrible moment, as I pulled away from Tadiwala Road in a rickshaw…I remembered. The man and his banana! I never paid! Full of self-righteousness and the desire to be hugely noble, I jumped from the moving rickshaw shouting to the driver and started frantically striding up and down Tadiwala Road. I searched high and low for a good two minutes and returned to the rickshaw feeling pretty satisfied with my own thorough attempt at accountability and social responsibility.
As we pulled away I glanced back inadvertently….and there he was. He was talking to a woman in the street, his cart unattended. I hopped out again, much to the driver’s increasing agitation and darted inexpertly amongst the traffic to the cart and having placed the money on the edge, dashed back again equally clumsily. I turned back to see the lady who the man had been speaking to pointing to the cart and then to me. The man walked over to it looking confused, saw the coin, picked it up, turned it over in his hand and looked up. As our eyes met I waved in recognition and I remember his face lighting up as he waved, just as vigorously, back. Seeing him happy, naturally made me happy, but more importantly, I felt I’d done the right thing.
For the rest of my time on Tadiwala Road there was a lot more waving between the man and I. We never spoke, but we didn’t need to. Whether I was walking past on the street or sitting on the pavement eating my lunch, if the man spotted me he would grab his latest customer or a random passer-by and regale them enthusiastically with gesticulations far above and beyond my comprehension, about the banana story. I would smile back and end up looking awkward in my attempt to look modest, because inside I was very pleased with myself. I think the significance for both of us was in the circumstances, not the money. In giving you really do receive.
The banana story highlights something at the heart of international development. That every encounter with another person has the potential for positive transformation and that as individuals we are responsible for this potential. We have limitless choices to make in our lives and although no person or organization is perfect, we must choose to do the right thing, and failing this, to right our wrongs as best we can. Whatever the currency, this value holds true.
When working from within an organization we can sometimes forget that it is only through others that we are able to make a difference at all. After all, no man is an island. I suppose the moral of my tale is that if the difference a person makes in this world is as small as meeting a man with a banana, as long as it affects positive change, it’s not bananas at all.