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Rice and Ice in Bowls and Buckets

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A week ago a friend challenged me to the ALS ice bucket challenge. I had already heard about it given that celebrities like Oprah, Steve Ballmer and Bill Gates had taken it up. One reason why I didn’t want to do it was obvious and the others not so obvious (even to me).

The obvious reason – I hate being cold. I’m the one that prayed and visualized being in a warm place, which finally resulted in us moving from freezing Boston to balmy Florida. So the idea of dumping a bucket of ice on myself did not appeal to me at all. But my kids were very tickled by the idea and even called up their Dad at work so he could pick up a bag of ice on his way to freeze Mom! Of course they forgot all about it by the time Dad came home. By then the ALS had amassed $23 million which I thought was enough. Why not donate funds to scientists working on the Ebola vaccine so it can be made available this year instead of in 2015? So many more lives could be saved right? But then who cares about Africa. Who cares about saving water. Who cares that some villages in Africa don’t have clean drinking water. Who cares about water shortage in cities in India. Who cares about drought in California. Thankfully a few people including me do!

Roll back to when I was ten years old living in the city of Chennai. If you drive around the slums you’d see a long line of women waiting with plastic pots or ‘kodums’ to pump water. They have no plumbing and no running water in their humble hutments and have to queue up at dawn to fill their pots with water for cooking and bathing. We lived in a rented house on the 2nd floor while our landlords lived on the 1st floor. We had plumbing and running water for many years and then suddenly our landlord decided to shut off our water. We had to go down to the backyard, pump water and carry it up two flights of stairs. Images of my mom’s kitchen with every available pot and pan (even the grinder)  filled with water comes to my mind. I was too small to carry a full bucket of water so I carried half a bucket to help. This went on for sometime and then my parents got tired of it, bought their own apartment and we moved.

Being denied such a basic need has scarred us forever. I still turn off the water while brushing. I never throw clean water that has been sitting around and use it to water my plants or wash dishes. Even water from our fish tank was never flushed down the toilet. My mother still waters her plants with dish water from her kitchen sink. Her kitchen faucet was dripping at one point and she kept a bucket under it to collect the water.

So seeing this mass movement of dumping ice made me very uncomfortable. I’m not a celebrity but I’m extremely suspicious of celebrities.  They (most of them) continue to spend lavishly on homes, clothes and even manicures encrusted with black diamonds, while people starve, lose their homes and die. This whole ALS challenge smacked so strongly of celebrities that I had to abandon it.

I’m not a social worker but living in the U.S. has opened my eyes to the kindness of ordinary people. People like you and me with modest resources. Volunteering and charity work is deeply ingrained in the American psyche. So when a friend in India was telling me about how people would rather throw away food than feed their maids, I was appalled. It was not like India at all. Feeding the poor was touted as a very meritorious act by almost every religion and said to bestow innumerable blessings on anyone who practiced it.

I suggested a food drive like the ones they do in the U.S. Food drives happen in schools, social groups and even the postal service allots a day when you can put non-perishable food in your mailbox to be donated to a local food bank. So I told my friend to start small. Involve just her colleagues and then slowly spread the word around and encourage others to conduct food drives in their communities. My friend was very excited about it but I guess her excitement was squashed by others. I can just picture them shrugging their shoulders and saying – What difference will it make?

So when the rice bucket challenge got media attention I was thrilled. Saving water and feeding the poor in India appealed to me and several others who took it up with gusto. It is even simpler than a food drive. It just involves one individual taking rice from their pantry and donating it to someone needy in their neighborhood. The celebrities in India have not caught the rice bucket fever yet but everyday folks are doing their bit.

I’m not saying donating to ALS or raising awareness about it is not a worthy cause. But doing it by wasting precious resources is not called for. Be a celebrity in your own right – not by mimicking the ones that pass off as celebrities by being blatantly insensitive and shamelessly narcissistic.

Donate rice to the needy or money to the ALS or some other worthy cause and you will instantly be a celebrity to me!

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