What's wrong with these people; how can they be so ungrateful? people ask about the tsunami victims who refused old clothes and food packets. How can someone who has lost everything not accept whatever is offered? I have an inkling of an answer. No, I've never been a refugee in the grievous sense of disaster victims. But I have been stranded, penniless, hungry and desperate, far from home, and I have some idea of what it means to be a refugee, even for a brief while.
It happened in 1973. After working in Britain for 15 months, where we'd saved money for the trip, Bunny and I were travelling through Europe on a shoestring. In London, we'd booked our flight to India on a cut-price Syrian airline service from Munich. After six weeks in Europe - France, Switzerland, Italy, Austria - we got to Munich with the last of our money, ready to fly back to India. That's when we discovered that while we'd been travelling an Arab-Israeli war had taken place, knocking out of action the three aircraft that comprised the entire fleet of the Syrian airline. No other airline would accept our tickets, which we were told were non-refundable in Munich - we'd have to go back to London where we'd bought them to cash them in and buy fresh tickets on another airline.
We didn't have the money to get back to London, and RBI regulations wouldn't let our family in India buy our tickets and get us back home: Indians travelling to India from abroad had to pay in foreign exchange. I refused to accept a loan from my relatives in Britain; I'd got into this mess on my own and I'd get out on my own. We were stranded in Germany, then the most expensive country in the world, waiting for the Syrians to get airborne again. Funds running out, we'd scavenge through supermarkets for reject-quality chocolates, the cheapest food we could find. While Bunny slept, I'd open a packet to show I'd eaten, and when she woke give her both our shares. I fantasised about stealing food from the bursting supermarkets. Nothing fancy, a loaf of bread would do. It wasn't morality that stopped me, it was fear of being caught. I learnt that respect for the law is in direct proportion to how much - or little - we have in our pockets, or in our bellies.
On a Munich street a woman selling toffee apples, discarding those not perfectly coated with caramel into a refuse bin, saw Bunny's hungry eyes and offered her an apple she was about to throw away. Bunny shook her head, gestured she had no money. The woman sign-languaged back: Bitte, please, take it; it'll just go waste. Bunny looked at the woman, at the apple, back at the woman. Then she reached out and accepted the gift. Both had to know that the apple had not been begged for; it had been given freely, and as freely accepted. That was important, more important than the hunger.
Finally, we had officially to declare ourselves ‘destitute ... and throw ourselves upon the mercy of the President of India' in the Indian consulate. Our passports were defaced, as per law, in our presence, and we were repatriated to India at government expense. When we got home to Calcutta (where it took me six months of babu-badgering to locate the bureaucrat who'd accept my reimbursement to the government which would allow me to get new passports for us) I discovered that in three weeks of hunger I'd lost 6 kg, Bunny had lost 8.
People often ask why I didn't take money from my folks in the UK to get us back to India and spare us the ordeal. Stubbornness? Perhaps. It's like those piles of discarded old clothes and food packets. Ingratitude? Perhaps. Though I'd prefer another word for it. A word which sums up the only thing you have to lose after you've lost everything else, the last refuge of the refugee: Pride.
My own father experienced the horrors of Partition in the time of Indian Independence. He related many a tale of the refugee camps, housing millions of dispossessed refugees, lives changed forever, economically, and in their hearts. He, as did most others, retained his sense of pride - coming up the hard way, and leading a full, healthy life in the new land - he never forgot the succor provided by those who cared.
I, myself, remember a terrible train accident that befell a train I was on with my parents. We survived, though many others did not. We followed a weary line of survivors to a small town in the middle of nowhere, Kagaznagar, where we were received by townspeople and given warm food and human support. The town's only industralist, a paper manufacturer housed many of us in his own residence for the night, until other travel arrangements could be made.
Every tragedy, small or large, brings out the best in humans, for the most part, and changes us. The Tsunami disaster has demonstrated this essence of humanity, with millions of people reaching out to help people half a world away.
More tsunami coverage