The shop from where I buy my groceries has a donation box in which people put money for the construction of a madressa. That box has been there for the last many years and every time I see it I want to open it up, take out all the juicy red and green currency notes and distribute them among the usual set of beggars in that area.
A few days ago I finally managed to express my desire to the shop-owner, Fareed Bhai. ‘Fareed bhai, it’s been so many years since you’ve been collecting money for this madressa, I’m sure it’s now complete?’
‘Yes,’ he replied.
‘Excellent,’ I said, ‘then why don’t we take all this money and give it to the poor!’
He looked at me puzzled: ‘This money’s for the madressa’s maintenance. And anyway, I have seen you put money in the boxes at Noor Ali’s shop, but not in this one.’
‘Fareed bhai, that is because Noor Ali’s shop keeps two boxes, one is for kidney patients (SIUT) and one for cancer patients (Shaukat Khanum).’
‘But Paracha sahib, giving money to a madressa is also a naikee (good deed),’ Fareed complained.
‘I’m sure it is,’ I replied, ‘but Fareed bhai, tell me this and tell me honestly: What do you think would make God happier; giving money to an already complete and running madressa, or to poor people?’
‘But this money belongs to the people who donated it,’ said Fareed.
‘How much money is there in the box at the moment?’ I asked.
‘Don’t know, seven to eight hundred maybe,’ he answered, shrugging his shoulders.
‘Ok, what if I add another five hundred, will you then distribute all this money to those beggars outside?’ I asked.
‘Paracha sahib, why don’t you give your money to the beggars and I’ll give the box money to the madressa.’ He smiled.
But I insisted: ‘No, Fareed bhai, I want money from this box to go to the poor!’
He laughed: ‘Arey, why little brother, why?’
‘Well,’ I continued, ‘because I am convinced God will be happier if we donate money to poor people rather than to a madressa.’
He shook his head and instinctively placed his hands on the sides of the box, as if unconsciously fearing that I will run away with it: ‘Little brother, why are you so against madressas?’
‘I am not,’ I protested, ‘I just think there are more madressas in this country than there are hospitals and good schools, that’s all.’
‘So what?’ he asked, shrugging his shoulders again, ‘that’s for the government to think!’
‘If so, then the mosques and madressas too should be the government’s prerogatives,’ I announced.
‘Government is corrupt!’ He reacted.
‘And those who keep asking money for madressas aren’t?’ I asked.
‘What do you mean?’ He asked, sheepishly.
‘Oh, come on Fareed bhai, don’t sound so innocent,’ I said; ‘you know as well as I do how much money from these boxes land in the hands of extremist organisations or in the hands of questionable maulvies, and …’
‘Enough, little brother!’ Fareed interrupted, raising his voice a notch. ‘Are you saying I am some kind of crook?’
‘No, maybe not you, but I would love to be the crook who stole money from this box and gave it to the poor, now let’s do it!’ I insisted.
‘Paracha sahib, what did you have for breakfast today?’ Fareed smiled widely, returning to his puzzled disposition.
‘Fareed bhai, you people (the urban shopkeepers), traders and some industrialists believe that by giving money to extremists and fraud maulvies, you are being protected from the wrath, the chaos and dirt of the masses …’
‘Bhai, what are you talking about?’ he asked, in a ridiculing tone. ‘We do it because of our faith.’
‘Well, Fareed bhai, this faith is first and foremost about helping the poor, and not fattening the egos and bellies of maulvies or those who preach violence and hatred to our children.’ I rhetorically announced.
‘Paracha sahib, let’s drop the subject. I am not forcing you to put money in this box,’ he said, finally picking up the box and keeping it in a closet behind him.
‘God be praised,’ I said, ‘now that’s where that box really belongs. Locked and hidden in a closet: away from the prying eyes of dirty, illiterate and irreligious poor people, and mad men like me who want to steal from it!’
Looking at my groceries, he said: ‘I see you are done shopping here. Should I make your bill… or do you want me to distribute that money to the beggars as well?’ He said, sarcastically.
‘That would be lovely, Fareed bhai,’ I said, paying him the money.
‘Bhai why don’t you understand; these beggars are part of a mafia. It’s a business!’ He said, handing me my groceries.
‘Really?’ I smiled, ‘and making madressas isn’t?’
He didn’t say anything. I picked up my groceries and knowing he would be making holes in my back with his eyes, I began distributing the groceries to the beggars outside. Then chanting ‘Allah-o-Akbar’, I sat in my car and drove away.
Nadeem F. Paracha is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and Dawn.com
He tweets @NadeemfParacha
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