Dealing with a sin called insensitivity
Jul 27 2014
We are all guilty of acting insensitively some time or the other in our lives, many times unknowingly. Even Bapu was not immune to such behaviour. This was in the wake of the riots following the Direct Action Day violence unleashed by the Muslim League back in 1946. Kolkata had erupted in two phases, following which the violence spread to districts of East Bengal, Noakhali and Tipperah. Then retaliatory riots, this time targeting muslims, erupted in Bihar. The violence was savage. Bapu worked in Kolkata, then through the ravaged districts of East Bengal and eventually in Bihar.
The incident I am going to illustrate here shows how sometimes, without wanting to be that way, one can appear to be insensitive and hurt the feelings of people. Bapu was travelling through Bihar, but before going into the interiors, he camped at Patna for a few days. Delegations of people kept coming to meet him. Among them was a muslim businessman who had suffered a lot during the riots as many of his business had been targeted. One of which was a bottling factory for aerated soft drinks. It was alleged that he had provided soda water bottles to muslim mobs that were hurled at hindus causing grievous injuries. The businessman had come to meet Bapu to proclaim his innocence and to complain about the losses he had incurred because of communal targeting. The subject of aerated cold drinks, especially soda-making, fascinated Bapu and once the businessman was ushered in, Bapu continuously quizzed him about the process of aeration and about how to make soda, the ingredients he used and the importance of hygiene. He, in his fascination for the subject, forgot the reason for the meeting, and the muslim gentleman felt that Bapu was being insensitive to his plight, and was not allowing him to voice his grievances. Finally, he took leave of Bapu and left.
Later, those who had organised the meeting informed Bapu that the businessman had taken offence at his behaviour and felt he had trivialised the issue instead of resolving it. It was only then that Bapu realised how insensitive he had appeared to be, although unintentionally. He called the businessman back and apologised for the hurt his seemingly callous attitude had caused. He pacified the businessman, gave him a patient hearing, and advised him that it was up to him to regain the confidence and trust of the people of the community he lived and worked with. The businessman was contemplating closing down his operations in Bihar and moving to East Bengal that would become East Pakistan post-independence. Bapu counselled him to reconsider his decision and not to abandon the land of his ancestors. Finally, he was able to pacify the gentleman and make him change his decision. This incident shows that it was also the greatness of Bapu that as soon as he realised he had been insensitive, he immediately made amends by apologising for his behaviour and the trauma it had caused the person.
Once I had gone for a hair and beard trim at my regular saloon. The owner’s young son had just entered college. Having known him as he grew up and having known his father for a long time, I was like an elder to him and the father wanted me to give his son some advice on the importance of being sincere about studies. After some pep talk and getting carried away in the spirit of giving advice, I inadvertently made a very insensitive comment. While concluding my pep talk I used a popular hindi proverb: Padhoge nahi toh zindagi bhar hajamat karni padegi. As soon as I said it, I realised how insensitive and demeaning my words were, and immediately apologised for it. Imagine telling a barber’s son that if he does not study sincerely, he will be doomed to be a barber for the rest of his life. Yes, all of us some time or the other are likely to be insensitive and cause hurt. What is important is to admit one’s mistake and with all humility tender sincere apologies and ensure that one knowingly does not repeat that mistake.
Recently, news came from the capital of a bunch of MPs from Maharashtra misbehaving with a catering executive at the Maharashtra Sadan as they were enraged by the poor quality food served to them. In their rage and arrogance, the MPs forced him to eat a stale roti. The employee had a muslim name, he was wearing a name tag displaying his name, it was the month of Ramzan and he was observing rozas. He claims he kept telling the MPs about this, but they ignored his pleas and forced him to consume the roti, thus corrupting his roza. The MPs now say they did not realise he was a muslim and they were only protesting against the substandard quality of food. Whatever the situation, it was brutally insensitive behaviour. And what was required here was an unconditional apology, not a mere explanation.
(The writer is founder president, Mahatma Gandhi Foundation)