Article in The Asian Age on 5th June
Strangers and their selfless kindness
Jun 05th, 2010 -- Kishwar Desai Last week was a veritable sea of disastrous headlines: led by BP’s inability to manage the oil leak, followed by the flotilla raid in West Asia, and now the Cumbria killings by an unhinged taxi driver in the United Kingdom. It has been a depressing seven days.
For me, personally,the West Asia flotilla saga was particularly dismaying as my son was visiting Israel at the time and it is well known how quickly the region can flare up like a tinder box. Talking to him later in the week and knowing he was safe was a huge relief. But it was a poignant moment when he spoke about travelling to all the places associated with Christ and his crucifixion. Am I being over-simplistic when I wonder why an area which should be an international arena of peace remains so controversial? Or are all birthplaces of religious icons destined to become virtual battle zones, as is our Ram Janmabhoomi in India? The more we say that that true followers of religion should believe in peace, the more we seem to do the opposite.
However, the assault on the flotilla carrying aid to the Palestinians focuses attention both on the plight of the Gaza inhabitants as well as on the kindness of strangers. Of course there were many foreign nationals involved but following the local media reports of the complicated, violent episode, one thing was notable: the philanthropy of the British. On board this highly sensitive and dangerous mission were British men and women, all normal folk like you and me, but who are determined to make the world a better place. Many of them took out time from their jobs, emptied out their savings and got onto the boat because they believed that the people of Gaza deserved to get humanitarian aid. Whilst the hawks in Israel would prefer to call those on the flotilla “violent, hate-driven Islamic radicals”, the fact is that the 1.5 million Palestinians living in Gaza deserve a better deal. To be forced to live out their lives like caged animals is something we should all find reprehensible in the free world, and the United Nations has said so as well.
The fact that much of the Israeli anger over Gaza is directed at Hamas also means that innocent lives get trapped in the midst of a greater political game. The support of the US in blocking an international inquiry into the attack on the ship has also been crucial in ensuring that the people of Gaza continue to suffer.
Among the more than 700 foreign nationals offloaded from the flotilla by the Israeli officials were around 40 Britons who were imprisoned. In the list were people like Theresa McDermott, a postal worker who has been to Gaza three times before. Another name which popped out was that of Peter Venner who runs a wood yard in the Isle of Wight. In an interview, the father of an aid worker, Alex Harrison, said quite bluntly that those on board were not terrorists and were “people who have given up months of their lives and thousands of pounds of their own money. They were carrying aid supplies”.
This philanthropic spirit of the British never ceases to amaze me. Whether a project is big or small, if it touches a chord in their hearts they are willing to support the cause unstintingly. Even I am experiencing it, right now, and this generosity of spirit is quite overwhelming. After the publication of my novel, Witness the Night, in the UK, I received a very moving letter from a complete stranger, Christine Roy, who had attended my talk at the Oxford Literary Festival, and read my book.
She had been troubled by the fact that Witness the Night dealt with female infanticide and foeticide and wanted to do something to raise awareness about the issue. We also discussed my desire to raise money for a charity (Vishwas, which works with disabled children in India) and, in particular, to support disadvantaged baby girls.
Without letting me know, Christine swung into action. Amazingly, she has invited me to Aberdeen, organised a fundraising lecture on the subject, involved the local authorities, got together the press and media, and is now working out a series of tours around Scotland! This kind of tireless, selfless endeavour has humbled me completely. It is precisely the sort of British spirit which makes them jump onto a boat sailing into dangerous waters and to empathise with an alien cause. This is unabashed altruism, not a search for headlines or for self-glorification. It is a marvellous disposition which is worth emulating. Vive la Christine and others like her!
ON QUITE another note, the resignation of the UK chief secretary of the Treasury, David Laws, over the monthly payment of around £950 to his lover as rent will no doubt raise many eyebrows in India. (It is against the rules in the UK for MPs to claim expenses relating to property owned by their relatives and partners.) This behaviour would be considered particularly appalling because, after all, £950 is less than Rs 1 lakh and probably considered by many, such as former chief minister Shibu Soren, as loose change. Absolutely absurd! Ministers in India, especially those in the “ATM ministries”, must be scratching their heads in disbelief. He is the business secretary after all, and a financial whiz! Why did he treat the love of his life so shabbily? No doubt he deserved to be sacked.
Apart from the piffling sums involved, the more tragic part for Mr Laws was that he was outed as being gay, a fact he had struggled to keep secret all these years. Whilst it is quite surprising that even in this liberal society Mr Laws was careful to conceal his sexual orientation, many would also wonder why he was hesitant in covering up a grand tradition of the Treasury? After all, Peter Mandelson, the former business secretary, has been flamboyantly gay for years. And if this goes on for much longer, perhaps it could even become an important qualification!
Of course, no one enjoys an exposure of their private lives and Mr Laws is not the first victim of UK’s blood-thirsty media. So now everyone is looking over their shoulders and being extra careful. The coalition honeymoon is over and it’s back to business as heads have begun to roll. Who will be the next to fall?
The writer's latest novel 'Witness the Night' is available on Amazon, and has just been published by Beautiful Books, UK