Amid the stories of camaraderie and heroism in the Himalayan foothills come disturbing reports of greed and rip-offs that are peculiar to the Indian milieu. People who managed to escape the mayhem in Uttarakhand recount the ordeal they went through without food and water.
Some unscrupulous elements saw this tragedy as an opportunity to make a fast buck. A bottle of water that normally costs Rs 15 is sold for Rs 100. A packet of biscuits costs Rs 200!
What's it in the Indian psyche that prompts us to cash in on others' misfortune? I haven't seen this tendency among people outside the Indian subcontinent. During the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, I saw Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis acting shamelessly selfish, endangering the safety of fellow countrymen for their own gain.
Contrast it with the conduct of a Bedouin vendor near my rented flat in Kuwait, from whom I used to buy snacks and bottled water. As stocks ran out and shops closed down during the Iraqi occupation, finding food became a constant struggle. One evening, the Bedouin greeted me with a wide grin outside his kiosk. He asked me in broken Hindi if I had eaten. I told him getting food is a problem.
He asked me to wait there and went into the kiosk through a side door. He returned a few minutes later with a large carrybag stuffed with snacks, water bottles and soft drinks. I gave him a five-dinar note, half expecting him to demand more. To my surprise, he returned two dinars and told me to come back when I needed more.
He had not taken a paisa more than the actual price. Later I learnt that he used to supply all his regular customers till the stocks lasted and never charged an extra farthing. Remember he was a poor old Bedouin, a desert tribe that is the butt of most Arab jokes.
I wonder how many Indian traders would act in such magnanimous manner in a similar situation. Many of us do not seem to have any qualms about taking advantage of others' adversity. Where else do you see road accident victims being robbed off cash and valuables?
Some years ago, my parents visited me in Chennai and expressed the desire to visit Tirupathi. As the bus winded its way through the steep ghat road, my mother felt giddy and threw up. By the time the bus reached the terminus atop the hill, she was immobile.
A young chap, who introduced himself as a "coordinator" turned up and offered to take her to hospital. He hailed an autorickshaw and accompanied us to the hospital which was barely 150 metres away. I requested them to wait but the "coordinator" refused and said the auto driver would not wait.
Okay, what's the fare? "Fifty rupees," he said without batting an eyelid. I had no option but to pay it.
The doctor gave mother an injection and a couple of tablets with a glass of water. She felt better and we walked back to the bus terminus where the others were waiting.
The "coordinator" and the auto driver must have shared the fifty rupees they fleeced from me. It was rankling to think of such rip-offs happening at one of the holiest places in the country.
Pretty much what is happening in Kedarnath and other holy places in Uttarakhand today. Fleecing the pilgrims is big business in this country.
On hearing about the latest reshuffle of the Union Cabinet, the wag quipped: "Now is the time for all old men to come to the aid of the party!"