Culture & Life

Thanksgiving and the Invisible Palm

If those who owe us nothing gave us nothing, how poor we would be.

In economics the concept of the ‘invisible hand’ is paramount: a force that somehow translates the self-seeking actions of each individual into an ultimate good-for-the society result. The Invisible Hand stimulates every person to only act for their own well-being. Much of my life, however, has been forged by the force of an invisible (let’s call it) ‘palm’ acting in the exact opposite direction. People who shaped my life and supported me, I am still amazed to think, had no self-centered stakes in their actions: no profit assessments, no cost-benefit analyses. In fact I consider my life to be just an anthropomorphized form of accumulated altruistic acts of others. The earliest instance I remember is of two kind teachers at my school. Now for anyone trying to bring themselves out of poverty, a good education is tremendously crucial. If not for these two persons who, at different times, helped my parents pay my school fees, I would never have received the wonderful education that is the strongest foundation of my life. These two are the first in a huge list of people who were to magnanimously pitch in whenever I would be in trouble, and then never breathe a word about their remarkable life-changing actions. I shudder to imagine where I would be without them.

Like those people at the educational trust which funded my high school learning. That trust nurtures the wonderful objective of financing students from villages and small towns in India’s Maharashtra state, and I have seen numerous boys and girls immensely benefiting from their work. The trust was also responsible for providing students like me perhaps the happiest and most educational seven days of our school lives. They took a dozen of us on an all-expenses-paid week-long excursion to the great city of Pune. It was an enormously expensive affair, but that didn’t bother them: the Invisible Palm was at work. They did this every year in fact, showing students from small places how a metropolis is — its museums, institutions, universities, science centers — and helping them interact with inspiring persons. I am forever indebted to them for what was a colossal experience for me at that time. For the first time I was doing something which no one in my family had ever done, all thanks to some benevolent souls who felt that money shouldn’t be a barrier for a student to experience the world.

Pune was also destined to be my future home: I was accepted into a medical school there (after being tutored by a teacher who waived his fees for me). Of course moving to a 3 million-peopled big city needed a lot of money, so my parents felt I better stay back and study something other than medicine. But the Palm had other plans. I may never have been able to do medicine if not for the wonderful folks from my town who pitched in in whatever way they could: many offered some kind of sponsorship to help me pay the initial huge expenses, some offered to be guarantors for a bank loan, some gave personal recommendations to scholarship offices, and some suggested I could skip the dorm and stay at their place in Pune till my rustic being recovered from the big-city-shock. When I look back at all that now, I am stunned by the amazing display of kindness I was subjected to.

Two years into medical school though, I was feeling the heat of high living costs and my parents were finding it hard to keep up. But soon I realized it was just the sets being propped up for a very dazzling Invisible Palmar performance. Seeing my predicament, a senior professor at my medical school stepped in. He recommended my name to an ex-student who was desirous of assisting needful students at the school. I communicated with the latter and, to my tremendous delight, he graciously agreed to sponsor my expenses not covered by the loan. This was pure, unadulterated kindness at its best. Eight years later I am still in touch with him, and he even sponsored my air ticket to Boston this August. I can’t imagine how terrible it would have been for me and my family if he had not come to my rescue back then, and if my professor had not so kindly suggested my name to him.

This year, I applied to and was accepted into the public health school at Harvard University. Foreign education is expensive, and I had a hard time getting a bank loan in India. Fortunately for students like me, there exists a bank (in fact “not a bank, a benefit”) at Harvard which I would say has a passionate belief in the importance of the Invisible Palm. It’s a bank which is so thoughtful about students that it doesn’t mandate you to bring guarantors, helps initiate the loan process from your home country itself, and doesn’t put forth any of those ‘banksy’ conditions that make life excruciatingly terrible. It is no exaggeration when I say that if not for the kind souls who set the values that define this marvelous bank, I would never have been able to reach Harvard. Even in Boston now, the Palm has been with me; from the gracious American friend who let me stay at his place when I had nowhere to go, to the Indian acquaintance who, despite never having met me before, saw to it that my transition to Boston life went smooth and painless: helping me move my luggage, inviting me to his place for meals so that I didn’t miss Indian food, and teaching me a thing or two about surviving in Boston.

There is and has always been a lot of evil around us, and most of it really stems from us playing automatic puppets to the Invisible Hands of the world rather than letting the Palms guide us. To many the Palm looks unsexy and boring. But it is mighty, and I have experienced its power and awesomeness firsthand. How else could it ever have been possible for a shemda* boy living in a two-room house where the ‘hall’ turned into bedroom each night post-dinner, to touch and smell the majestic walls of the world’s most towering university?

[*Shemda: A word that is part of the culture where I come from. Literally meaning ‘having a runny nose’, it is slang in Marathi to denote a simple naive child.]

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