Monday, 28 April 2014

Feeling Charitable

‘Tis the season to be charitable.  To dig deep into your pockets and share some of the wealth you have with those whose lives, unlike yours, have been overlooked by the bountiful gaze of the Goddess of Fortune.  For Muslims, alms giving to the poor and the needy is a must in this month of Ramadan.  It is an act of merit that would count towards securing a heavenly spot in the after life.

There is a rich businessman in Jakarta who makes a habit of bestowing a generous amount of cash to the poor at this time of the year.  The number of hopefuls gathering outside his house in anticipation of the handout can get quite huge and it is not rare that the rush for cash results in crushes that are fatal.

Once I dropped by to this charitable event.  Very few of those who lined up were actually mendicants by profession.  Obviously feeling poor is a subjective thing.  Many came from out of town and this gathering, waiting for the gate to be opened and receiving free cash, was an annual affair for them.  The trip was always worth it as the businessman is quite generous in his gift.  I was told that in the previous year he gave everyone who came a hundred thousand rupiahs.  This time, they were hoping for an increase as things were getting expensive.

At some point, after a few hours of standing in the sun, their patience ran thin. The gate was supposed to be opened by midday, but still there was no sign of them being allowed to enter.  Some started to complain loudly about the delay.  How inconsiderate of the man.  How long were they expected to wait for?  Last year was so much better organized, etc.
I mentioned that since the man was charitable enough to give everyone coming to see him a fistful of money, the least they could do was show a little patience.  After all, he didn’t have to do it.  Upon which I was told, rather reproachfully, that giving was the rich man’s duty and privilege.  He should be grateful to them for taking his money, as they were helping him earn a large amount of merits that would guarantee him a good place in the hereafter.

I thought this reply was interesting.  I hadn’t thought of it like that.  And here I was, thinking that the act of giving is to show compassion and consideration for one’s fellow humans.  They were probably right.  If it was about compassion, I could think of other ways to perform charity without making hundreds of people throng outside your gate and even risking their lives.

I went to a mosque with a friend to make a donation.  At this time of the year, the bigger mosques set up tables to deal with the number of people coming to pay their obligatory ‘zakat’ payment.  There was some kind of calculation involved of which I was not clear. Other than the ‘zakat’, you can also give a donation with the amount left to one’s discretion.  The money is channelled to help those in need in the rural areas and to give the poor access to much needed capital.  So I was told.

I gave a handful of cash and hoped that it would go to where they said it would and felt a minute thrill of pleasure that my little contribution might mean something to someone.  The lady behind the table wrote me a receipt.  She held my hand for a little while and said a prayer.

‘Now your wealth is ‘halal’,’ she kindly informed me.  ‘Charity giving cleanses your earnings.’  I was rather taken aback.  All this time I thought that I had earned my living in an honest and professional way.  But obviously my wealth is tainted.  Still, if I had earned it the shady and corrupt way, it was good to know that there is a way to launder it back to pristine cleanliness.  Now, if only paying taxes gave me the same heavenly guarantee and good feeling.

A couple of days ago I received a text message.  It was from a relative.  The few times I’ve met him were on family gatherings.  He is always hard up.  For some unfortunate reason, luck had not been on his side and he would use the occasion to cadge for some money.  No, hello, how are you and what have you been doing for the last four decades since we saw each other last, but, it was, I need such and such an amount to pay for such and such thing, could I have some money please.  To be honest, I feel sorry for him and on more than a couple of times have given him something.

The text message said: hello, how are you.  Am I going to be lucky this year?  I will be visiting your sister next week so you can give me the money then.

I am ashamed to say the sentiment that I had on reading the message was far from charitable.  I’m still finding it hard to wrap my mind around the idea that to help someone is a privilege for which I should be grateful.  After a few deleted words, the only sensible thing I could muster was: ‘if you’re lucky, then yes, I will give it to my sister to pass on to you.’  The line between feeling sorry and feeling annoyed is getting pretty thin.

And yes, I am giving him some money, not out of fear of being barred from the kingdom of heaven or to cleanse my wealth, but because I choose to.    (Desi Anwar: First Published in The Jakarta Globe)

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