KEEPING THE GANDHIAN IDEAL ALIVE:
THE GRACIOUS GIVER OF SURABAYA © Duncan Graham 2006
Next month (March) one of Surabaya’s most outstanding philanthropists – and certainly the most consistent - turns 80.
Naraindas Tikamdas Sakhrani (better known as Narain) gives alms to the poor of the East Java capital every Thursday around 8 am. The bill for the rice, biscuits, noodles, soaps and coins his staff hand out to around 150 people costs him Rp 10 million (US $1,000) a month.
He’s been doing this non-stop for more than 27 years.
Occasionally a few volunteers inspired by his example come along to help with the distribution. Most are from churches with a welfare ministry and sometimes bring food or detergent. But few last more than a week or two.
So the job falls back on Narain’s wallet and his ten staff who mix and decant the pink syrup and condensed milk drink prepared for the children, and bag the rice in 500-gram units.
Distributing aid is a laborious and debilitating experience for both donor and recipient. Which is probably why so many helpers don’t stay the distance.
It’s not like rehabilitation assistance following a natural disaster, a temporary measure to help the victims get back to normality. With endemic poverty there’s no end in sight. The giver feels like a colonialist striding among the squatting beggars with a sack of food, and the hungry are not always thankful.
While the old women are usually polite and grateful there’s a brooding resentment amongst some of the young men that they’ve been forced to accept charity. And the kids who snatch and demand don’t endear themselves to do-gooders who expect the little toughs to have middle-class manners.
It’s not that the system lacks dignity; the poor don’t have to queue, just sit patiently in an alleyway alongside a mosque, picking lice and rolling smokes from discarded butts while waiting to be served. Nonetheless there’s little nobility in the exercise.
Born in India, Narain came to Indonesia in 1947 as a 22-year old after graduating from the University of Bombay. He settled in Surabaya where an uncle was trading in textiles.
The young man started the Indian Publications Company in an old Dutch house on Jalan Pahlawan (Street of Heroes), close to the Governor’s office. Most of his business was in educational texts, trade handbooks and academic works.
Narain prospered. He became the Indian consul and head of the Sindhi Merchants’ Association. He took out Indonesian citizenship. His business expanded into ceramics, handicrafts and religious knick-knacks, selling locally and exporting.
He soon made the A list of people who had to be invited to every notable occasion. In the society pages he stood tall and handsome, witty and urbane, alongside lesser men in peaked caps. He used the opportunities to effect.
Anyone he could buttonhole at a reception was likely to be given one of Narain’s Yellow Pages, a photocopied brochure outlining his philosophies, religious outlook and values, plus a dose of aphorisms.
Some VIPs must have thought this an impudence, but could hardly complain to a gracious and distinguished gentleman in a prestigious setting. Others with more open minds have responded, become donors and have been added to the businessman’s mailing list.
It would be wrong to assume Narain is an obsessive pamphleteer. He’s not like the herbal remedy salesmen encountered in shopping malls, thrusting their unwanted dodgers onto passers-by.
His approach is always low key, discreet and polite – and certainly sincere. He can be funny and self-effacing, but he’s not into small talk.
Apart from all the heavyweight business people (“big shots”), Narain has met many of the great figures of history – Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi, Sukarno, Suharto, Megawati and just about every minister and administrative head you could name. Most have been given the Narain treatment.
Some, like Malaysian Mavis Ching have been inspired to develop their own soup kitchens. She now runs an international humanitarian organisation in Malacca called Touch A Life, and Project Daily Meal in Yogyakarta.
Then five years ago tragedy struck. Narain was diagnosed with diabetes and high blood cholesterol. He became seriously infected. Cancer was suspected and he was whisked into a local hospital in a coma. He woke in the Mouth Elizabeth Hospital in Singapore minus his left leg.
Lesser men faced with life in a wheelchair at 75 would have given up. But Narain, who has never married and has no close living relatives, imposed a strict diet on himself. He set about regaining mobility – not easy in the cluttered old two storey house with a narrow staircase where he started business – and redoubled his private activities.
Then a double blow.
By now the book trade had opened up with the demise of the Suharto government and its policies of controlling information. Hundreds of titles were being published in Indonesia and imported from everywhere. Bookshops were no longer rare and closeted places.
Narain’s illness and the change in government crippled the business. He’s closed up shop and been left with 15,000 outdated books stacked on the shelves, along with plaster saints and other icons.
Despite this the generosity hasn’t faltered. At government and corporate functions he still draws respect; metaphorically he continues to stand tall – even though confined to a wheelchair
Surrounded by hundreds of portraits of Hindu deities and Balinese beauties, and texts from all the great holy books, Narain spoke to The Sunday Post in his lofty cream and green office in Surabaya. In the background satellite TV beamed from India shut out much of the street noise below:
Your illness must have been a great shock.
When I came to I didn’t know where I was or what had happened. I talked to a nurse and she put my hand in the place where my leg should have been. I called out in horror and a doctor came in. He said: “You came to Singapore almost dead and there was no guarantee the operation would save your life. Now you’re angry and shouting – so you’ll live.”
Why do you think God has extended your life?
God thought: “Who can do all the things this man is doing? There’s nobody to replace him yet, so he needs a few more years.” God plays chess with the world and moves the pieces here and there.
(This is a bit tongue-in-cheek. Narain’s handouts say: “Distinguished men of today are extinguished men of tomorrow.”)
If you trust in God 100 per cent you will find there is something meaningful in all God’s work. For example, after the floods have come improvements.
My memory is still good and my health has returned. I wake at 3 am and work about 16 hours a day. I also exercise.
Now you have no cash flow, where does the money come from to feed the poor?
Every Wednesday night I wonder that too. But by Thursday morning we have enough. You should stay in my house one night and see how the money showers down! God gives it to me in my left hand, so I must give it to the people with my right hand.
If I come to your house and you invite me for a meal I don’t take your food: I share your food with you.
Why do this? Most people would think it’s the government’s job to help the needy. Why don’t you get the social welfare officials involved, - provide health care and medical checks for example, press the kids to go to school?
I’ve done that, and for a while we had a government clinic. Then their budget ran out and they stopped. Indonesia is so corrupt – it’s number one. And number two is India.
This is the problem when the government helps the poor. I’m told that few are receiving the Rp 100,000 (US$ 10) a month (to compensate for the fuel price hike last October.)
You didn’t talk to the people getting your food today.
I couldn’t find four men to carry me downstairs. I thought of installing a lift but it would be too expensive. I’ve tried a prosthetic leg but it put me off balance.
Why run a charity by yourself? No boards of directors, no committees …
This started more than 30 years ago when my father Tikamdas began giving the poor who called at our door one rupiah a day. The numbers soon grew and didn’t stop. I continued it when my father died.
This is not my project. It belongs to God. It is our duty to help the poor and needy who surround us.
I’ve been told that many people sell the food you give them, that the beggars are organised by preman (street thugs) and are able-bodied, but don’t want to work.
Look at them! How many could find work? They’re dressed in rags, they live under bridges. Who will employ them? Their consciences have been killed by poverty.
I know some sell what we give. That’s their right.
As Jesus said – the poor are always with us. These people are born beggars of beggar parents. It’s their karma. You can change it only through prayer and good deeds.
My social activities and charitable work are done with pure feelings as my duty to Great Indonesia, as from son to mother. I want to continue to do this for as long as I live.
Indonesia is the place where my heart is at rest. Fulfilment came to me in Indonesia. It came because I fell in love with the people and country and consider it my second Motherland.
I am just a humble servant of mankind and brother of the poor and needy.
You keep handing out your newsletters and words of wisdom. Do you really think anyone pays attention?
Oh yes. Everyone except Indians. They think they know everything!
Give me an example of the sayings you want others to consider.
Character is life, character is power.
Character is true holiness.
Without transforming character
Packing the brain with information
Can only result in damaging it.
You met Gandhi. What can you remember?
I met him twice, the first when I was 12, later when I was about 20. (Gandhi, a pacifist, was assassinated in 1948). I call him a man of light. Gandhi led his countrymen through darkness to light.
I saw reflected in his face and in his words the light of service to the poor, the light of friendship with the lowly and the lost, with the broken ones of India and humanity.
Who loved India more than Gandhi? How many among India’s great ones today would say with Gandhi: “All religions are true! And all religions are almost as dear to me as my own Hinduism?”
In your house you have a chapel or prayer room with an altar carrying statues and symbols of the world’s major religions.
I’m Hindu, but all religions are universal. I believe in God. This is my daily prayer:
God keep my big mouth shut till I know what I’m saying.
God be in my prayers and in my worship.
God be in my heart to recite your Holy Name and spread it around my surroundings
God help me to offer my thoughtfulness, kindness and compassion to all living things.
God create peace on Earth for all.
God, shine my path in departing from this world.
(First published in The Sunday Post 26 February 2006)