A simple act of kindness

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Yesterday, on the way to the hairdressers – barbershop, to be more accurate – I was caught in the rain and had to shelter under a tree while all around me the street was lashed with monsoon fury. (So heavy was the rain, that, at one point, I was certain I saw Poseidon rise from the asphalt to wave his trident at me. He looked a lot like Jason Momoa.) During this watery hiatus, the door of the small house beside me opened and a man in boxer shorts and a risqué T-shirt skipped out to press an umbrella into my hands. 

‘That’s quite alright,’ I protested. ‘I have to go to the hairdressers.’ His English wasn’t very good and so I pointed at my head and made a combination of slashing and scissoring motions. God knows what he made of that.

At any rate, he wouldn’t take no for an answer, and so I took the proffered umbrella and went on my way. 

Sitting in the barbershop, I couldn’t help but dwell on the gesture. 

This man – a complete stranger – had no reason to help me. In fact, he had every reason not to. There was no guarantee I would return what was a perfectly serviceable umbrella. Did I look particularly trustworthy? Did I exude the sort of aura that invited strangers to leap to my aid? Was he afraid that I would drown in the deluge and that my bloated corpse would come floating by his house later that evening and that he would, forever after, find himself wracked with guilt whenever it rained?

By the time I’d had my short back and sides – my barber operating from behind the safety of a suit of Covid-rebuffing armour – I found myself inexplicably moved by the simple kindness of the act. I walked to the nearest off license, slammed a fistful of soggy currency onto the counter like Jay Gatsby on steroids, and then returned the umbrella, together with a large bar of chocolate. My saviour’s smile of delight communicated volumes. One simple act of kindness in return for another.

As I later related the story to my nearest and dearest – and I’m ashamed to say it grew in the retelling, so that my chocolate bar turned into a hamper of delights the likes of which only A-listers at the Oscars will ever receive – I couldn’t help but dwell on the past year and a half, a terrible period in human history when the desire to seek the welfare of others has been at the forefront of our thoughts and actions. Admittedly, much of that has been motivated by self-preservation – none of us can heal until we all heal, etcetera, etcetera – but we’ve all heard of many small acts of kindness that demonstrate the ‘we’re in it together’ mentality that should – but rarely does – categorise the human experience.

Altruism is a strange thing. In zoology, altruism is defined as the ‘behaviour by an animal that benefits another at its own expense’. Such behaviour has been well documented in the animal kingdom. For instance, vampire bats often regurgitate blood and feed it to other members of their colony who have gone hungry that night. (There are many other examples but this one seemed particularly intriguing.) 

The point is that true altruism occurs when we act to promote someone else’s welfare, even at a risk or cost to ourselves. Helping someone when it also materially benefits ourselves is great, but it’s not altruism. 

Recent research seems to suggest that such altruistic behaviour is not as rare as we might think. Studies show that humans exhibit inbuilt impulses towards cooperation – a behavioural instinct observed even in toddlers. Evolutionary scientists suggest that altruism developed as a means of helping promote the survival of our species. Though at an individual level altruism doesn’t seem to make sense – throwing yourself in front of a ravenous lion to save your friend may do wonders for your friend’s survival chances but tends to drastically reduce your life expectancy – it benefits the procreative capacity of the group, as a whole. Furthermore, the latest studies in neuroscience show that when we behave in this way, regions of our brain are activated that are usually associated with pleasure or reward. 

Such being the case, it would seem that human society should be awash with acts of selflessness… 

Clearly, there is another side to the story. 

Human history – and the world around us – is replete with the evidence of our ability to be truly selfish, malevolent, nasty pieces of work. That goes for me too, lest you think I’m sitting on my holier-than-thou camel, passing judgement on the less pious. I’ve behaved in less than admirable ways in the past. I’ve missed many opportunities to offer a kind word or perform a simple act for another with no thought of what I might receive in return. I could come up with a litany of excuses to rationalise such behaviour. I was too busy; I was too young; I didn’t think it was needed.

The best thing about being human is that we have the capacity to change with age and experience. Without descending into Eat-Pray-Love preachiness, the fact is that, each and every day, we can move towards a better version of ourselves. We are presented, almost constantly, with opportunities to behave better, to act with more thought, to express ourselves in ‘nicer’ ways.  

I am a writer. It’s a lonely profession. Writers are often caricatured as charmless social hunchbacks, beavering away, glaze-eyed, in their cave-like dens, only brought into the light like shackled prisoners when a new book must be promoted, grunting their way through literary engagements while their publicists gibber and gnash their teeth at the back of the room. We’re supposed to be a selfish bunch, perpetually infatuated by our own brilliance, so in love with ourselves that even Narcissus would be put to shame. 

Yet, one of the best things I’ve discovered over the past years, is how collegiate the writing community can be. Lifting each other up when things don’t go to plan, celebrating each other’s good fortune when things go well. I’ve witnessed numerous selfless acts, little demonstrations of kindness, for instance, successful authors with nothing to gain helping those new to the game. Contrary to popular perception, such selfless behaviour seems to be a hallmark of the literary fraternity – from reviewers to bloggers to readers to booksellers to those who work behind the scenes in publishing houses big and small. Yes, it’s a business, and it can be a harsh one, at times, but even within the economic necessities of this most of subjective of enterprises there is room for simple human thoughtfulness.

None of this is to suggest that I believe we are about to enter an ‘age of altruism’ or that I myself am now going to don sackcloth and walk the earth as friend to man and beast alike, raising the dead, embracing lepers, and so on and so forth. Far from it. I know my limitations. But that stranger and his umbrella brought something home to me – you don’t have to be rich or famous or Bob Geldof to bring a measure of joy to another human being. 

And if it costs you a little something to do so… Well, then you’ve carried out a genuine act of altruism, my friend. 

Good on you.

My quarterly newsletter contains articles, competitions, giveaways, short stories, book news, and recommendations. Simply register here

My latest novel, The Dying Day, is set in India, in the 1950s, and features India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the disappearance of one of the world’s great treasures, a 600-year-old copy of Dante’s The Divine Comedy stored at Bombay’s Asiatic Society. Soon bodies begin to pile up… Available from bookshops big and small and online. To see buying options please click here.

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