Chicago Blues

This blog is an online repertoire of my columns that run in the Indian Express, North American edition. Here I rave and rant about life, mostly as seen from the large vistas of my little world.

Location: Chicago, United States

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Armchair Philanthropy vs. Authentic Altruism

For a self-confessed paper tiger like me, it is always heartening to hear about swashbucklers who not only do brave things, but also end up becoming good Samaritans in due course. Which is why I felt a keen sense of admiration and pride well up as I read about Veeramuthu Kalimuthu, a 40-something Columbia University employee-turned-hero, of desi origin to boot, who rescued a stranger from being runover by a train on New York city Subway tracks last week. Kali, as he’s being referred to in the media, is said to have “sprung into action,” by simply jumping on the tracks and hoisting the unconscious man, allegedly a drunk, to onlookers on the platform, before casually walking across the tracks to board his train.

How many of us can boast of “having it in us” to heed the need of the hour, go all out to save a life, or even just help someone in danger or distress?

There’s the truly stirring story of Vinay and Sameer - both were diagnosed, not long ago, with Acute Myelogenous Leukemia. Their family and friends, with the help of complete strangers, were able to put together a Bone Marrow Registry in the hope of finding matches for the two of them. After months of hard work, perfect matches were found for both from the 400+ bone marrow registration drives that were put forth, registering nearly 24,000 donors to date, with a staggering 20% increase in South Asian representation in the National Bone Marrow registry. Although Vinay has gone back to hospital since the initial signs of recovery were discerned, with unfortunate complications; and Sameer, after a long, painful struggle, has passed on; the good thing is that there has not only been an increase in awareness about the significance of a Bone Marrow registry, but, among other cases, the success story of a 33-year old pharmacologist - Meenu Bedi - who donated her stem cells to a leukemia patient last year, has inspired many more Indians across the US to take the swab.

And then there’s another story, closer home, if you will - not too long ago, these friends of ours shocked us with a sudden, unusual decision they’d made - they were moving lock, stock and barrel to a tiny island in Central America, to help reconstruct the lives of its hapless citizens who weren’t as much as aware of the meaning, let alone import, of terms like “trade” or “riches” or even plain old “drinking water.” It came as a shock to us simply because we couldn’t understand this power of the unknown that had led them to give up their perfectly normal, urban lives, replete with decent, well-paying jobs, to take off to a barren land to help a bunch of aliens where anything could go wrong. But they did go, and even though we haven’t heard from them since, there’s something inside of me that assures me they’re doing well.

Perhaps a reality check is due for some of us, who, like me, not only shrivel and cower at the prospect of having to jump off a train platform, bridge, or high-rise to help someone in need, but tend to ease off our nerves from feeling powerless by simply signing off a check to donate to a charity. Like in the case of Dr. Nilima Sabharwal, a physician at Kaiser Permanente, who made a generous donation to an orphanage in India, about a decade ago, heaved a sigh of contentment, and forgot all about it. Later, around tax time, she recalled her act of generosity, and took the initiative to organize a fundraiser in the Bay Area, where she and her friends raised a few thousand dollars, which, as she later found out, had helped build clean bathrooms for the children in the orphanage, saving them from an appalling epidemic outbreak. She has since done much more, including establishing an organization, Home of Hope (HOH) that helps fund projects for destitute and disadvantaged children, enabling them to become self-sufficient.

Maybe there’s more to a philanthropic deed than the celebrated, high-and-mighty NRI-checkbook charity…


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