Monday, June 1, 2015

Can you really help a fool

'Fool' is a strong word, and I don't use it lightly.

Prakash is about 50, and has worked with my family, off and on, for some 30 years now. He is a good manual worker, but has not acquired any skills beyond a dogged ability to clean the flat surfaces of our home, and water the plants. When he has taken leave, he has disappeared for months, and we have been forced to look for other help. For most of the last 20 years, we have been his fall-back employers, having him come in for a couple of hours in the morning, while he spent the day in a succession of other jobs.

When my mother passed away in 2011, she had willed him Rs. 30,000. My sister, Kanika, felt the money should be used to help him secure a home in Delhi, since Prakash owns no land in his village. When he said he could procure a 'jhuggi' for 1,50,000, Kanika said she would take the amount up to 1 lakh; I volunteered the balance. It turned out, Prakash was completely out of touch with the market, and there was nothing to be had for under Rs. 2.5 lakh. Eventually, I bought him a small piece of land in Sangam Vihar for just under 3 lakhs, on which he said he would build a room.

As the months went buy, it became clear that Prakash could not mobilise the money to build; our chauffeur interceded on his behalf, and I agreed to pay a mason for the construction. The space allowed for a single room 10 feet by 15 feet, with a small toilet tucked under the stairs leading to the roof. During the construction, Prakash decided he didn't want the loo in the space, so as to allow for more elbow room. "We'll use the fields" he said. Kanika and I suggested the loo would make for a more comfortable home, but the man was adamant. And it is his home.

A few months later, Prakash approached me for some more money, to build the loo on the roof. The amount was not significant, but I was concerned about whether the structure would handle it; he said he had spoken to the mason, and with a low brick wall and a tin roof, the load would be insignificant. I gave him the money.

Now, the roof has cracked with the load. I don't know whether the mason was involved in the loo retrofit, or whether it was a typical jugaad. Now, I don't know whether to feel responsible, and pick up the pieces, or walk away, having done 'enough'.

I typically get very angry when my wife says those poor remain poor who have bad behaviour patterns. I believe that it takes a couple of generations of interacting with the modern world to pick up rational decision-making abilities; I know that extreme poverty leads to short-term decision making. And yet, among the staff we employ between our home in Delhi and those in our mountain home - all village-born and bred - we see such a huge spectrum of behaviour.

Several of our employees set savings practices into play very early in their lives, and have now accumulated reasonable sums to deploy for their childrens' future and their own old age. Ironically, they probably won't need much of this money, because the children have proved to be responsible individuals, who've gone through school, groomed themselves for better lives, and will, I believe, look after their parents when they are old.

The very parents who have been feckless with their money have irresponsible children, who dropped out of school, can't hold jobs, and treat their parents as a convenience. The children have made no progress up the socio-economic ladder, and are extremely likely to be of any support to their parents in their old age. It seems as if you just can't trump genetics, even with a fair amount of will and a reasonably generous wallet.


  1. Hmm.... reminds me of a proverb or doha by Kabir from my school days that has stuck in my head for 3 decades:

    पूत सपूत तो क्या धन संचय
    पूत कपूत तो क्या धन संचय

    It seems the conclusion you draw has been drawn for centuries!

  2. I was trying to recall that very doha, Vikram!