How to Help Without Stepping On People’s Dignity


Every morning the doorbell rings at 9 am in our house. It is the khudawalla. The garbage man or in our case, garbage boy ready to collect our trash from the day before . In our former place we pay the khudawalla separately every month but in this housing state we moved to their salaries are included in the monthly fees we pay the homeowner’s organization. The monthly fees are not so big and are also divided among security guards, sweepers and gardeners. I can only imagine how much the khudawallas are being paid. I am sure it is very little. I think that is why they have such a gloomy angry look every time they come to collect the trash.

” And not only that. Some people treat them very badly also. Shout at them and scold them a lot.” added my husband when I remarked to him about this. In fact in our old house there was one time khudawallas went on a strike because one of the homeowners slapped one of them for parking a garbage cart behind his car.

If what I learned about the caste system in India is correct the khudawalla belongs to a caste probably similar to that of the sweeper caste. I have read that in past the caste system was the Indian way of identifying what role in the society you play or what was your occupation. If you are traders or shop keepers then you belong to the merchant class. Farm or land owners belong to the farming class and soldiers belong to the martial class. But now the caste system defines who you are not what you do. It is disturbing how the people in this country are judge by what class they belong to. I have even heard from an educated acquaintance of ours such statement as , ” How dare this person tried stop my car when I am ( caste) and he is only a chamar. He even touched my car! ”

In olden times if you belong to a lower class like the untouchable or tailor or sweeper, your whole lineage have to stay in that caste for all eternity, from your ancestors to your great great grand children. You will face very strong resistance if you try to aspire higher. Nothing short of being burned alive. Now the Indian government are trying to remedy this by allowing especial seats in selected universities for the lower caste students who want to have a college degree. Though I don’t know if this really helps the lower caste at all since they can’t even afford to go to school much less go to college.

I’ve read a lot of books about India especially novels by Rohinton Mistry. One book in particular that moved my heart long before I stepped foot in this country is Fine Balance. It is a heart wrenching tale of two untouchables who bravely fought to get out of their caste which ended tragically. Sorry for the spoilers. I might be romanticizing the flight of lower caste but these people are suffering for no fault of their own. It is only their bad luck that they were born in a lower caste.

Some people will say it is their karma. That they have done something bad in their past lives that is why they ended up being born in this caste. If all the people in this country really believe in karma then crime and corruption would be none existent here.

When we see someone struggling to survive in life we would want to help especially the young people who are at a point in their lives where they are still forming an opinion wether people are good or bad. Wether the world is a good or cruel place to live in. What are we teaching them then?

We want to help them. But how to do it without stepping on their dignity? Without humiliating them further and treating them like beggars? I have a few ideas but I am still polishing them as in my experience one must tread carefully if one wishes to help. It is not simply donating money to a charitable institution; signing a check then patting yourself in the back for being a good person. You can also help people in need you meet in minute ways in your daily lives.

1.Treat everybody who works for you around the house with respect. It is not cash nor kind you can dole out but the most important part of being human, the gift of not stripping them of their dignity and pride. Do not break their spirit.

All workers no matter how unimportant you think their jobs are ( mostly applicable to countries not as advanced as the west where it is already happening) should be respected. If you treat the garbage boy with the same courtesy as anyone who is doing a good job then he would not feel so ashamed of what he is doing. A maid will take pride in cleaning houses if you pay her well and instruct her as if you would a junior in your office and not your slaves.

2. Find alternative ways of helping besides handing out cash if it is not an urgent need. I always find it awkward to give cash as tips to people who help around the house. They take the money from you in abject humiliation, eyes lowered hating receiving alms but badly needing money. Instead of gratitude, bitterness often swells up in the heart. Very few people really feel grateful for those who help them when they were down if the one who helps proudly displays that he or she is helping them. They often stay away from these people when they begin to do well. Not that they are ungrateful but these people bitterly reminds them of the most humiliating time of their lives.

One day I thought of giving the accumulated old newspapers to the young boy who collects the trash instead of giving them to the people who collect old newspapers. The boy got confused. My husband had explained to him that he could sell it. The boy looked even more confused. My husband further explained that he can sell it and keep the money to himself. The boy’s face relaxed a little then looked at us thoughtfully but suspiciously at first. As if saying, why are you being nice? What do you want from me? From these series of reaction you can already surmise what kind of life he must be leading and what kind of people he must be dealing with. After that day he comes to the gate without the angry frown on his face anymore but with a thoughtful and quizzical look. I hope he is thinking that the world is not so bad.

3. Do not think of helping people as an investment. There are people who would help you in exchange of favors you can do for them also. Sometimes even doing their errands. What kind of help is that? If the arrangement is such do not even declare that you are helping that person for you are trading services instead.

Surviving this life is hard enough even with the set of skills and resources one has so think about those born without all these advantages. If you cannot help atleast get out of their way when they are trying to rise above.

© JMKhapra

* watercolor illustration by Jofelyn M. Khapra

21 thoughts on “How to Help Without Stepping On People’s Dignity

  1. “Though I don’t really know if this really help the lower caste at all since they can’t even afford to go to school”
    It does help. There is movement. It goes very slowly but give it another 50 years, and lots of things will really have changed. I’ve seen some poor people really move up the ladder, in Delhi, where they can be a little more anonymous. …
    Dowry system should also change. Times are less far off when roles will be reversed. There is a surplus of men, … also in China.

  2. social inequality will be around wherever we go. it’s part of the human psyche to discriminate. the best way to handle this issue is to learn to treat everybody with respect. showing someone that he matters regardless of his status in society will go a long way in developing mutual understanding.

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