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Stains On My Plate

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I don’t consider myself to be a philanthropist. I would have liked to but I don’t think I am. I have empathy, sure, loads of it, but philanthropy is a leap not every empathetic soul can take. I feel bad for a lot of people. I feel terrible. Oftentimes, at traffic signals, when children begging for alms have approached me, I have felt gutted. I can barely meet their eyes for more than 5 seconds. If I do it for any longer, I see my shame and my privilege in them. In fact, if my companion isn’t looking, I even shed a few tears. Most genuinely, mind you. That makes me a good human being, yes? One who feels for others, one who feels their pain? And I turn to my wife and say, from the depths of honesty in my heart, “I feel helpless. I don’t know what to do.” And she says, “It’s okay baby. You can’t do much.” I notice the love in her eyes for me, because my vulnerability and empathy are adorable in that moment. And I feel good to see that. Huh? It’s all very twisted.

But some people take that leap, from empathy to philanthropy, and they light no candles and blow no horns. One such guy is Prince, who started his endeavour, Artistes for Artistes (A4A) during the pandemic. In short, A4A supplies ration to artistes in need. Prince and his team have gone out of their way to generate funds for this noble work and a lot of our theatre folk are helping as delivery people, in and around their areas of residence. My wife and I found ourselves volunteering from the earliest stages of the deliveries; now this was real work, you see? Going out and taking the risk as opposed to sitting at home and transferring money to the maids, cleaners and other needy folk, but not getting our hands dirty, so to speak. It was also a chance to get out of home; legally. We live in Mahd Island, and for those who know it, the road from here to Malad is an absolute joyride. It also meant that we could have a friend to give us company on the drive. You know, to help out. The satisfaction of a noble cause came with a promise of fresh air; not without, if you know what I mean.

I can dwell on the various artistes we met on our forays (also how narrow my definition of an artiste had been earlier), on my respect for Prince and his team, and some fun times I had. But there were two incidents in particular that I wish to talk about here, for they shall forever continue to haunt my soul.

My friend and I had finished our round of deliveries in Malad and I was headed back to Madh, alone, with one delivery left on my list. My friend had made all the phone calls to the recipients that day, but it was left to me to call this last person. I called him a few minutes before I was to reach the given address. Before I could introduce myself, he said, “Gupta ji, don’t worry, I’m right here on the main road.” I could have just said okay and hung up. But I corrected him, “Um, that was my friend. I’m Sukant Goel.” “Arrey, sorry sorry Goel sahab. It was Gupta ji who called earlier. From your number. Goel sahab’s number.” “Yes sir, that was my friend.” I got a feeling that this one was going to talk. A lot. And I wasn’t feeling up to it, after 2-3 hours of a masked existence without water or food and feeling like the virus ought to be somewhere in the car by now. I just wanted to deliver the kit, go home, shower and do my thing. And what was the fuss about Gupta and Goel? For those who know, we are all Agarwals anyway.

Nonetheless, there he was, just how I imagined him to be. He was a middle-aged actor who wanted to talk. He hardly seemed to care for the ration. I told him I practice theatre when I was asked. And he went on to tell me about how he impressed B.V. Karanth to join his theatre group in Bhopal. And how he played different characters. “You have 5 minutes na Goel sahab?” he would ask every 2 minutes, not really interested in a negative from me, and I’d just nod and recreate the 4 feet of distance between us, that decreased ever so slowly through his stories. He told me I should check out the links to his YouTube work where he uploads a poem a day since the lockdown. He whatsapped them to me standing there. And then he told me about a film he did in which he played a significant character. I knew about that film. Two of my close friends featured in it as lead characters. I said I’ll tell them I met you. He said you must. Finally I left. He almost shook hands with me. When I was taking his photo with the ration (we were asked to do that if people were willing), I suddenly thought he reminded me of my father. The salt and pepper hair, the heavy frame, the grey shorts and the carefree smile. It hit me. I left. I messaged my friends who were in the movie with him. I told them how close to us this madness has reached. Both of them expressed their shock and sadness. After bathing, I noticed his messages with the YouTube links. I never opened them.

I met him again on another delivery. He was in need again. But that day he had just come from a meeting with some producer who had shown interest in a screenplay that he had written. He told me, “Goel sahab, there is a role for you in the film too. We will make the film with our good artistes from theatre. Gupta ji will be in it too.” He went on to narrate the entire story of this film, while we stood under umbrellas that had taken two seasons of pounding, and while my chappals bravely fended off the dirty water flowing down the road. I don’t think I really listened to his story fully. The awareness of the rain having nullified our social distancing was also biting into me. But I did not take his photo that day. I could not. I still haven’t opened those YouTube links.

As it turns out, I have run out of space to write about the other incident. I may also have run out of effort to do so. I am faced with the hollowness and incompleteness of my empathy. Henceforth, I shall never be holier than thou in philanthropic discussions.

Let me leave you with the image I see when I think of the second incident. Seven people sit in a stuffy room in Malvani, staring at a man who stands at the door with a bag of ration in his hands. Ration that can feed one person for about a week.

– Sukant Goel

For further information on Artist for Artist log on to www.artistsforartists.in
Or call the helpline number 9022238000.

About by Sukant Goel

Sukant has been practicing theatre in Mumbai for over 10 years, having acted in plays like Detective 9-2-11, A Few Good Men, Blank Page, Krapp's Last Tape, James Aur Ek Giant Peach, Aaj Rang Hai and others. He has also directed the plays, Ishq Aaha (with Gagan Dev Riar), The Lesson and Going to the Sea. His film work as an actor includes Ghost Stories (Netflix 2020), Kapoor and Sons, Kaalakandi and Ribbon. He also works with children and corporates, using theatre as a means of communication and engagement.

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