The news hit an unsuspecting public that afternoon, and many watched in growing numbness as the horror unfolded on the television screens in their living rooms. Two days later, at the morning Church service, the parish priest made an appeal for the victims of the Nepal tragedy.
Mrs. Pereira thought about his words on her way home. Her husband, employed overseas and home for his bi-monthly break, was having breakfast when she entered. She laid her shawl carefully on the back of a chair and explained to her husband what she had in mind. He listened without interruption, nodding when he agreed and frowning when he didn’t. When she had ended, he pointed out a few discrepancies in her plan. He offered a few ideas of his own, and it was her turn to nod. At the end, he nodded: “Let’s give it a shot. When are you going to call your friends over?”
She got up. “The sooner the better: delaying won’t be of any help to the countless victims.” She went to the phone and called up five of her closest friends, inviting them all over for tea that evening.
When they were gathered around a pot of tea and cream crackers, Mrs. Pereira put down her cup and looked around. They were her dearest pals, all neighbours, of differing religious backgrounds. She knew that this was where she had to start. “All of us have been following the news of the earthquake disaster.” There were nods all around, accompanied by grave expressions marking the solemnity of her words. “There have been a number of appeals for help, mainly for aid in the form of financial donations. I don’t know if any of you have already donated… I haven’t. As yet. Mainly because I wondered if I couldn’t do something more useful.” They looked at her, interest writ large on their faces. “Most of the victims’ immediate needs – food, drinking water, shelter, medicine – will have been met by the various organizations in the area. But other needs will become more apparent, over time: like clothing, for starters. Maybe books and toys later, as children are housed in colonies with nothing to do.”
Margaret, a neighbour, frowned. “You want to organize a collection-drive.”
Mrs. P nodded. “If the houses of most Goans are anything like mine, then there will be a wealth of stuff lying about in drawers and attics, collecting dust and occupying space. If we can convince people to hand over such items to us for the victims, imagine how much materiel we can collect!” She looked at them, one by one. “Let’s start with the five of you: is there anyone here who has something useful to contribute to such a drive?” They all nodded at once, each one apparently having thought of an item they didn’t need.
Seeing their nods, Margaret laughed out loud. “Well, the five of us – who you have fiendishly convinced with biscuits and tea – contributing won’t amount to much.”
Mrs. Pereira smiled. “You’re right, Maggie. But what if I asked each of you to invite five of your best friends/relatives/acquaintances over to each of your houses for ‘tea and biscuits’? It’s such a simple exercise: socializing for a worthy cause.” It was her turn to laugh at their expressions. “See, it’s like this: now that I’ve evinced some interest from you lot, I would want you to bring your stuff over to my house. I’ll clear a corner somewhere and keep the materiel there. In the same way, each of you summon your pals for tea, launch your own appeals for their old household goods such as clothing and books and toys, and keep them in your houses. You will also try to convince as many of your five guests as you can, to hold their own ‘tea-parties’. In the meanwhile, I’ll try to make contact with one of the NGOs involved in the relief effort. At the end of say, a week, I’ll come out to meet each of you, bringing my van. I’ll go to each of the houses – yours and your friends, etc – and bring all the goods to my house. When we get enough, I’ll ship out the materiel to the NGO.”
From the six of them combined, Mrs. P collected items enough to fill 2 small cartons that she pushed into one corner of her kitchen. Through the internet, her husband got a contact number for an NGO that claimed to be working extensively in an area bordering Nepal. Mrs. P called the enquiry desk and promised to keep them apprised of the results of the drive she had helped to initiate.
By day three, she had received several calls from people she had never heard of, all saying that they had a lot of materiel to give out, and asking where they were supposed to drop it. By that evening, there were fourteen cartons of goods sitting on her front lawn. With her husband, she worked tirelessly through the night to clear out their garage then shifted the boxes inside. A day later, she called on her friends for assistance. Over biscuits and tea, she explained what had to be done.
“There are over forty cartons packed inside my garage.” She said. “Instead of simply sending them as they are, I think it would be wise – and in the long run, helpful – if we were to sort out all the items first, then re-pack them. Several reasons for this: not all the goods may be of use. We’ll have to toss this kind of stuff away. It would also be a good thing to pile things up, item-wise. Dresses in one corner, pants in another, for instance. Then we fold them and pack them into cartons.”
Margaret looked faint. “Fold them? That’s – going to be a lot of work…”
“Folded clothes occupy less space. My husband has been fortunate enough to get a pharmaceutical firm at Verna to donate a whole pile of cartons to us.” She chuckled. “He explained that when the boxes arrived in Nepal, they would look good in photos showing the name of their firms stamped across all the cartons!” Then her face became sober. “All of us here are housewives, and we all know the amount of work we each do in our households. Asking each of you to give up what little spare time you have to assist in this effort is not easy for me, but I do it because I believe that the sacrifice we make will be worth it.
“There are thousands of people out there, on the other side of the border, strangers really, who have suffered some fate that has left us untouched. I asked myself last night, when I was in bed: what am I doing? All this hard work for people I will never meet. I’m never going to see their smiles when they get our contributions. It’s not like giving blood, where maybe you get to at least see the victim, and know some day later that he survived, and then feel good about the role you played.” They were all silent, some of them looking in her direction, others away, their faces showing they were lost in thought. “The only answer I can come up with is that it’s the right thing to do. For once in my life, to get up and expend some effort for a cause in which there is no tangible materiel returns. Maybe to prove to myself that there is some good in me, and in all of you, who are my dearest friends. I may never be asked to make such an effort again.” She lifted her shoulders. “Everything we’ve done has been based on an appeal to that part of each of us that is good and true and noble: to step out and give of ourselves for a worthy cause. I now can only appeal to you: for your time and your energy for what is left to be done.”
That Sunday, after the Mass, Mrs. Pereira went up to the mike. Her voice was soft as she spoke, but it carried to each corner of the Church and to every set of ears within. “I want to thank all of you who have contributed to our effort to give aid to the victims of the disaster. Through your kindness, we have managed to put together over 60 cartons of clothes, toys, and books. One of our leading transport firms has kindly offered to dispatch the goods to the destination office, of the NGO assisting from that end.” She paused, looked down as though she knew her next words would not be received well. “While the vast majority of the goods we have received have been useful items, I would like to make mention of some of the items that weren’t really- ” She hesitated again. “- well, appreciated. Things like torn t-shirts, tattered towels, bed-sheets with holes in them, books with pages missing.” She looked at the faces studying hers. “We are giving to other people. These are other human beings who are now victims. Their only fault was that they chose to live there. Tomorrow, we could become the victims. How would you feel if you lost everything you owned, and the aid package you received contained clothes that were torn and had holes in them?”
There was a reporter waiting outside her house. She looked at him in some surprise when he produced his credentials. “What can I do for you?” she asked, standing in their driveway.
“I’d like an interview with you.” He said. “Your effort has exploded into a drive that has spread to other communities. People like you from other parts of our State have launched their own drives. You’ve done a wonderful thing here, Mrs. Pereira.”
She shook her head. “It wasn’t a one-man job, I can assure you. A lot of fine women gave generously of their valuable time and effort to put this into motion. And none of us are looking for publicity. So please don’t waste your time here.” She made to turn away.
“Wait.” He nodded. “If you’re not looking for self-publicity, then how about a story that could help the public to understand how you went about it. Even though there are others already replicating your effort, who knows how many more are out there, wanting to help but not knowing how to. Your story could make them reach out, and help a lot more victims in the long run.” He saw her hesitate. “Through your own efforts, maybe a hundred victims may be beneficiaries. This way, your ideas could galvanise 10 other Mrs. Pereiras, and help 1000 people more.”
Two days later, Mrs. Pereira came home to bleak news. Her husband greeted her with a grim look. She sat down as he told her what had happened. “The two goods trucks with all the donated materiel never reached their destination. Then, an hour later, a police jeep found the trucks parked near a hotel. The drivers were tied up inside, and all the goods had vanished.”
“I don’t understand.” whispered Mrs. Pereira. “What happened?”
He sighed. “The goods were hijacked. All the news your drive generated made the convoy high-profile, I suppose. Hijackers lay in wait, and stole the cartons.” Anticipating her next question, he laid a hand on her shoulders. “I know: what possible value could those items have, all being second-hand? The thing is, just as such calamities bring out the good in people like yourself, others try to gain from them. No doubt someone thought they could steal two truckloads of donated goods and sell them cheap.” He shrugged. “Maybe even to the victims themselves.”
Mrs. Pereira received the second shock of the night while watching the television. Her son suddenly shouted: “Hey, that’s my t-shirt!”
She started, then looked closely at the images on the screen. The camera crew was trying to focus on the relief camps that had been set up, and the conditions there. The shot showed a group of children peering curiously at the camera. The t-shirt her son had donated was being worn by one of the girls about his age.
Mrs. Pereira frowned. “Are you sure? There must be other t-shirts out there-” And then the girl giggled and hid her face and turned away from the camera. And the Pereira family saw the name in bold letters printed on the back of the t-shirt: DANNY.
Mrs. Pereira let out her breath. “So the goods did reach them. But how? Were they sold?” She discovered the answer to that question the next day.
A letter was delivered to her by courier at noon. She saw the return-address was Delhi-based, and opened the envelope.
Dear Mrs. Pereira: you do not know us, but you are now well-known. It was simple to get your address from the print media. You are by now aware of the fate of the two trucks carrying your goods. We wish firstly to inform you that the goods are in good hands: where you had intended them to reach, those who needed it most.
Just as calamity breeds good, so does it breed greed. The NGO you chose was not the best choice for your intentions. A lot of the relief goods have been sold on the black market for personal profit. We believe that only 40% of the aid that is given to this particular NGO has actually found its way to the victims.
Reading of your effort, we decided to intervene and ‘kidnap’ your stocks. We met the drivers, both natives, and convinced them of the true nature of our task. They agreed to co-operate. And now, though you may not approve of our ways, the goods you tirelessly worked to collect are with those that need them. These people do not and indeed might never know of the guardian angel that came to their aid. But some of us do. We salute you for your efforts, and we thank you.
The front door was still open. She shut it gently, and went into the house.