Good Energy

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Saturday, 21 August 2010

An Unquestionably Good Soap Opera

She asks me for a ride on the bicycle, but she’s too short to reach the pedals, so I put her on the handle bars and as I’m circling the car park I can feel the fleas in her hair and dress biting my arms. She’s one of the street sleepers that live under the flyover bridge across from where I’m parked with a dozen other families.

I don’t know her name, but Reema is a beautiful name so lets pretend it's Reema. Reema’s family is probably from the countryside, if they were from the city her family would have a small home in one of the waterless tenement blocks of the city. Instead she sleeps on a blanket laid over the uneven paving stones, next to the gutter, and by a few bushels which are home to a few rats. Maybe she’s eight years old.

I tell her I’m going to give her some soap for her dress to wash out the grime and make the frilly lace collar less of a perfect habitat for lice. But, I warn sternly, I expect to see it clean. She nods dutifully. I pick up a bar of clothes soap and keep it in my pocket until I see her again. She is excited and rushes off. A while later I see her as I’m cycling past, and she runs into the road in her underpants and vest shouting and pointing that her dress is drying. I feel flush. I have done some good. Unquestionable, unchallengeable good. It’s the best kind of good. No downside. Perfect. And consequently I am a good person. Today I have done enough to earn a daily membership to the human race.

And the next day she knocks at the door with the dress on, clean, as clean as the grime stained fabric could ever be gotten, and a proud smile that would melt any heart.

I hatch a plan. Emami, the company that gave me biodiesel also make soaps. It’s the same reaction produces biodiesel as well as soap. A few bars from their factory them would be nothing to them, maybe even some end-of-line stuff? Factory seconds? I remember the boss of the Emami group gave me his card, its nestled in my wallet. And what if I could get him to set up a scheme whereby employees dish it out on a regular basis. The plan can’t fail. I compose the email. Pomp, urgency, flattery. He can’t say no. Send.

The plan fails. He doesn’t say no, or yes. He just doesn’t reply, despite calls and more emails. He’s out of town, and I’ll be gone before he’s back.

Calcutta has hand pumps on almost every street, so water isn’t a problem but for the large community of street sleepers the expense of soap is a luxury they could use some help with. This is too good an idea to fall now.

I hatch plan B. I speak to a friend who runs a high end retail store. But it turns out they don’t sell soaps bars. Plan B is looking shaky. I wish Plan A had worked. My friend is polite about my scheme but he finds a kind way to advise me that a lot of these street sleepers are into prostitution, child prostitution, drugs, and some are “gaylords”. If I give them soap, they’ll just sell it and buy drugs. I really wish Plan A had worked. It’s not the first time I’ve been patronised this week, but this time it matters so I swallow it, smile and reply full of understanding and respectful nods.
“The people that sleep near the bus are families, not mafia, there are no charras pipes burning at night like there are on Sudder Street.” I counter. “And I can’t imagine them getting much drugs for the four rupees [eight US cents] that a bar of soap sells for. So even if they are gaylords and drug addicts, wouldn’t it be better for everyone if they were washed gaylords and drug addicts, less likely to contract and spread Weils diseases from the rat piss?” I could have said urine, but I throw in the final swear in the hope it gives me a gritty street authority.
“Oh the rats here are very clean”, he assures me, but out of politeness agrees to help me out at the weekend. In the meantime Reema keeps asking me for more soap. I’m beginning to suspect that she has me pegged as a soft touch, and that irritates me. “You promised me soap!” she demands. “I’m working on it” but she doesn’t understand the delay.

I could get the soap from the local grocery store, and dish it out, but that would be the beginning and end of it. I’d like to co-opt this friend and get him to see these are vulnerable people for whom a bar of soap is an essential luxury they’d otherwise forgo. My hope is I can persuade him that this is something that should be done on a fortnightly basis. If I could persuade him, he’s the sort of guy that would persuade others.

But in the meantime I buy 20 bars of body soap, and 20 bars of clothes soap. As I walk over to the traffic island the rumour spreads that the tall white guy has finally got some soap. I’m mobbed by pleading hands, sorrowful frowns and whining voices. I just see a mess of little fingers, old fingers, female fingers. The same kids that were dancing and giggling to the solar disco are now acting out the pain of their existence, needing only whatever it is in my bag to heal them. The insincerity of adopting this Dickensian role irks me even more, but it's so ingrained that they can’t it even though we know each other.

Reema is the first pair of hands I sink a couple of bars into. After I give out a few more bars her hands are out again. “No I haven’t had any” she insists. I’m angry she takes me for such a fool, and frustrated by how hard it is to physically distribute and spread around the soap so no one is left out. I give up, and try again at night, but the mobbing is just as bad. I end the night locked in the bus with about 10 of the original 40 bars left and a mute lady making a grunting noise at the door. Despite stripping off and taking a good shower somehow the fleas make it in to my bed.

In Mauritania, a Spanish couple I was travelling with, Maria and Juan, pulled a football from the boot of their car, in a quiet desert village with 3 kids milling about in the central sandy open area. It took about 60 seconds after that first kick for the pitch to fill with over 30 kids, appearing from all directions. And less than a minute more before the pretence of a game totally vanished and the wrestling match to get ownership of the ball had begun in earnest. To their credit Juan and Maria managed to wade in and stop the match after only two or three minutes of all out rioting child carnage. Considering the violence of the scuffle it’s a testament to the hardiness of Mauritanian kids that so few of them were bleeding. Maria and Juan opened up the boot of the car once again and started dispensing plasters and bandages along with a healthy dose of admonishment. Unfortunately the clamour for medicines caused a second even more violent riot which involved a fair few adults too.

Eventually, three hours later and after quelling several more riots, they presented the remains of the punctured football to the smallest kid with the most injuries, who promptly steeled himself for the final riot that would centre on him as soon as we'd driven out of the village.

After a moment to reflect, my anger turns on myself. Why am I surprised that I was mobbed? How can I begrudge them the soap I’ve bought them because they didn’t form an orderly line, with pleases and thank-yous. They didn’t fulfil my fantasy of grateful urchins allowing me to relish my moment of unchallengeable goodness. How arrogant. If I’d been in their bare feet (they don’t have shoes) I’d be snatching the soap bars out of the bag. I allowed my friend’s paranoia that the bars will be sold instead of used, to grip me. How stupid.

But my ego aside, the problem remains; how can I do it so that I spread what I have around, so that the most vulnerable get them and no one gets hurt in the scramble. I toy with buying ink to stain fingernails of recipients, setting up a table, somewhere in the bus is a clipborad, and laugh at the over complication. Better to spend the ink money on more soap and give it to the wrong people.

And that’s it, the best solution I can come up with; buy too much and give it out scattergun knowing that at least some will hit the mark even if some might miss. We’re only talking about cheap soap here. And anyway how can it miss? If it washes someone’s body after they’ve slept on the street then its hit. It’s arguably good, not quite unquestionably good, but still not bad. Perhaps they’ll give me half a day’s membership of humanity for that?

And at least I’ve had a practice run ready to take my friend out tomorrow, but I know Plan B is headed the way of Plan A. I read a great quote “In India, sometimes you have to surrender to before you can win”, but I’d add that sometimes, you just have to surrender.


  1. hey andy .. r u still in Kolata ..mamta

  2. Hi Mamta,

    Yes still here til the 27th/28th

  3. Emami are sending me 50 bars of body soap. Thanks Mamta.


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