Thursday, January 30, 2014


To achieve complete selflessness is a remarkable thing. Especially in a world as self serving as ours. Consumerism in unthinkable ways pushes us more and more to invest in personal comforts and pleasures. A bigger house, a newer car, a bigger tattoo, the latest gadget and endless varieties of foods to consume. The purpose of progress seems to be only about personal gain. This makes us a citizen of our wants more than the needs of the world. Then there are doctors, nurses, relief workers and activists who work in selfless ways in the service of humanity. Some of us contribute to that effort every time there is a catastrophe and the images on TV become unbearable and the suffering of others questions our place in the world. Having acquired an obscene amount of wealth, a few super rich start foundations and give sustainably over a period of time as they are concerned about their legacy. There are those who achieve a level of selflessness that people like mother Teresa and others in her group have come to embody and symbolize. Driven by religion or some internal drive or passion they do good that leaves people in awe of their presence. Then there are those who have lived a loveless life and gain love by selflessly giving to others. The world is full of such nameless people who we seldom hear or read about.

Recently, bouncing from channel to channel on American television in search of something worthwhile to invest my time, I came across a documentary film on PBS titled "Blood Brother". The colorful images peaked my interest because the film was set in India, the country I was born in. Blood Brother tells a story of a young man named Rocky Braat and his time at an orphanage in a remote village in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. My initial reaction to the film was - here we go again, another story of a white person going to some impoverished and destitute part of the world to save "the children". I have seen this before. If it weren't for a white person and his/her compassion from a place of privilege, this film would never have been made. But as I began to watch the film, my cynicism began to shift. As I saw Rocky immerse himself in this world of children, who were abandoned and left on the edges because they were HIV positive, my impression about him and his journey began to change. Watching him care for these children, while they consumed a cocktail of drugs to stay alive and intermittently saw their companions fall to the horror of this disease was moving. Keeping hope alive was a daily struggle and Rocky had become the motivator of that joy and hope.

Rocky's motives for being in India were a bit puzzling. It was clear that he came from a broken family in Ohio, where his emotional needs were not met in any way. But the fact that he chose this route to express that deficiency and sought to fill that void by helping children with HIV was impressive. Walking barefoot, like the children and adults he had come to live and move with, he felt at home in this remote and drastically different place. The love he had found by putting himself in a place where most would run from, somehow grounded him. Through all the challenges India throws at you, he seemed to have come to appreciate the essence that truly makes Indian people, especially children, genuine through ever present misery, oppression and cultural imprisonment.

As we watch Rocky go through his motions, there are times you really wonder if his journey was being captured on film to make a spectacle of a situation that is dire, distraught and disturbing. But what turns the tables, is when he comes to care for a child who is on the verge of death. When a ten year old's entire body erupts into open wounds from the inside of his eyes to his toes, the doctors give him ten days to live. In an extremely hard to watch long sequence, we see Rocky attend to this child in the most selfless manner possible. Nursing every wound with extreme care, concentration and diligence, without leaving his bedside for a moment, ignoring the threat of infection, Rocky brings the child back from the brink. This scene in this film transforms the viewer and with the power of the documentary medium, one truly comes to appreciate Rocky and his unconditional devotion to this child. His selflessness is on full display via an observational camera. By saving this one child, you feel he somehow conquers the world and finds the meaning of life.

Most documentaries of this nature end with the protagonist returning to his/her country of comfort a changed and humbled person. Reflecting on this complex phenomenon called "humanity", he/she is transformed. Or some western agency or organization awards a medal to the protagonist for his/her charity. While the film has won many awards for the humanity it captures, it ends with Rocky making the village his permanent home. Marrying an Indian woman from the nearby village, he settles down in the service of these children. Whether his time there will be temporary only time will tell. But for now Rocky seems to have found a family and love that he was deprived in another world.

If more of us exhibited selflessness, when asked to do so, the world would change. Today there are 9 million internally displaced refugees in Syria. There are another 2.4 million who have been driven from their homes and are living in squalor in camps in Jordan and other neighboring countries. United Kingdom has agreed to give asylum to a few hundred, those who have been subjected to the most horrific violence. As the Geneva talks falter, there is a great need for nations around the world to act in selfless ways to stop the suffering. There is ample room in the world for many, but very little space in our hearts it seems.

This week we lost a giant in America. An inspirational figure to all through music and valiant acts of defiance and demanding justice in a democracy. Pete Seeger once said "the key to the future of the world, is finding the optimistic stories and letting them be known." Rocky's story is of optimism and hope. We can all find such stories in our minuscule lives to share. Sharing is caring, and to care is to change. It is what it is.