Nine years ago, we rented a premises for our business. It was a four-storey building and we had it done up according to our taste. For its upkeep, we engaged a housekeeping agency that supplied us the right staff. We were happy that we didn’t have to worry about our non-core business, about training, retaining and the rest. For a bit of extra money, an external agency was accountable for all that. I sat down with one of the guys who was responsible for dusting my office, let’s call him AJ, and explained to him how I wanted it cleaned. Use swiffer here, wet wipe there, a soft cloth here and so on.
AJ nodded throughout and carried out his task to perfection. I was impressed with this young man who seemed at the fag end of his teens but displayed the maturity of a senior manager. There was only one problem though. Every time, he cleaned my office, the whole cabin would smell of very strong body odor. I found it unbearable. AJ was one of the four housekeeping guys and I thought of replacing him with one of his colleagues but I didn’t want to offend him.
I wasn’t sure how to broach the topic without hurting him. I asked one of my managers to gently ask AJ to take a bath every day before coming to work. AJ just nodded. A few days later the problem still persisted. I was beginning to get edgy at his gross neglect. Once again, our operations manager had a chat with him and AJ apprised him that his agency only issued him two shirts. Instantly, we spoke to the company agreeing to pay more provided they issued five shirts to each of their employees on our premises.
The problem was solved for a few days and then resurfaced. Our office was fully air-conditioned, so the doors were mostly closed and every time he came to my cabin, I found it difficult to breathe for several minutes after that. We got deodorants for everyone and it only made matters worse as far as I was concerned. Firstly, the strong scent of a deo would trigger my allergy and my asthma flared up. Secondly, deo mixed with his BO (it rhymes!) produced this unearthly smell of some nether world or whatever. You get the idea.
Finally, I thought I would talk to him myself. For, seeing that the issue was unresolved, I (mistakenly) felt that my people didn’t understand the gravity of the issue here. I called AJ. He was looking scared.
“I’m very happy with your work, AJ,” I said to him. “We all are.”
A big smile broke across his face. “Thank you,” he said.
“Everyone has body odor,” I tried to explain. “Do you wear fresh clothes and take bath every day?”
Suddenly, his smile disappeared and he lowered his head. It took a fair bit of cajoling and prodding before he would speak. I told him repeatedly that I wasn’t angry with him or firing him, that I just wanted to understand and resolve this issue.
“Even if I want to, I can’t wear a fresh shirt everyday,” he said. “I do wash my face everyday when I come here.”
The mercury can really soar in India, things can get hot and sweaty very fast. I was appalled at his complete absence of hygiene.
“Sorry, AJ,” I said sternly, “but, you must take a bath before you leave your home every morning. It’s non-negotiable.”
“But, I don’t have a home, sir,” he said and began sobbing.
“Excuse me?” I said, feeling as terrible as puzzled.
“I don’t have a home,” he reiterated. “I live in a shanty. It’s made of tarpaulin and nine of us live there.”
“There is only one water tap in our slum that has more than 500 residents living in 50 shacks. Water supply comes for two hours in the morning and evenings. Even if I wait a whole night to be in front of the queue, the big guys there will beat me up. They always get to bathe first. Even before them, the priority is given to the women filling buckets for drinking and cooking. By the time, they are done, there’s no water left.”
“That’s awful,” I said, shocked. “But, we pay you enough so you can afford to rent a proper place, at least shared accommodation. You get two days off every week and Rs. 9000 per month. I’m sure you can manage a better lifestyle.”
He went onto tell me that he only got one-third of that and that he rarely ever got any day off. On his days off here, his housekeeping agency would deploy him at the owner’s home for cleaning, gardening etc. or at some other place.
I got on the phone to the housekeeping agency and blasted them.
“Ever heard of this thing called employment laws?” I said to the owner. “You guys are not running a company but a cartel.”
The owner wouldn’t admit any fault and kept on saying that there must be some confusion. Frustrated, I hung up. We got all the housekeeping guys together and gave them direct employment that very instant. I offered to pay for their education, further reduce their working hours so they could go to school, college or wherever. None of them was interested in studying nor could I make them see the value of education. Beside gross exploitation and having to live endure such inhuman conditions, their complete disliking for education was the saddest part.
On a lighter note, the BO problem was finally solved. Nevertheless, we arranged for a shower too in employees’ washroom. AJ moved into a rental place three weeks later. It took some effort on everyone’s part to find a landlord who would rent him the place because he wanted to move in with his seven family members.
I learned a big lesson from this episode: looking at another person, we can never tell what all they are going through in their lives. Many people around us live in extremely difficult, challenging or abusive environments, often for no fault of theirs. Putting the law of karma aside, I don’t think AJ ever wished to be born in such dire circumstances, or growing up he ever imagined that this was the kind of life he had signed up for. Besides, no matter what might have one done, no one deserves to be mistreated.
Therefore, in my humble view, our first emotion towards anyone should be compassion, let’s give them the benefit of doubt. Due to our upbringing and the way our brain functions, we can’t stop judging people. It comes to us naturally. We look at a man lying by the roadside and we believe he must be drunk, whereas he might have just suffered a heart attack. Based on race, appearance, clothes, speech and so on, we quickly label the other person. This unwholesome way of making sense of our surroundings and people around us is non-spiritual and unreasonable.
If it is spiritual progress you aspire for, the virtues of compassion and gratitude, of empathy and humility have to be inculcated and practiced. There is no other way. You can be firm, you can say no, you can deny a request, you can do all that and much more without foregoing compassion. If nature has blessed you with so much that you can afford to read this blog on a phone, tablet or a computer etc., somewhere then, it becomes your duty to do your bit to make this world a more beautiful place. I’m not denying that the luxuries you enjoy in your life, you must have earned them with hard work. That’s all the more reason to do something for others. For, if you can accomplish so much, you can easily do just a wee bit more.
While boarding a train once, Gandhi’s shoe came off his foot. He managed to get on the jam-packed train but the footwear was left behind. A few yards into his journey and he quickly took off the other shoe and chucked it on the platform.
“Why did you do that for?” A co-passenger asked him.
“At least, whoever would find them will get a pair,” Gandhi replied. “Of what use is one shoe to anyone?”
There is no reason for us to forsake our goodness, to not count our blessings, to not help others, to not be gentle. What a blessed life we have, let’s allow others to dip into our joys and resources. The path of goodness is most rewarding for the one who seeks enlightenment.