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Universal handclasp

To me certain basic values are universally held by human beings regardless of race or caste, values such as hospitality, friendship, understanding. No one culture or people holds the monopoly over goodness.

Holy books -- whether the Quran of the Muslims or the Bible of the Christians -- advise kindness to the distressed and generosity to the wayfarer. Let me cite two random and personal examples which to my mind define heart in goodness -- the concept of kindness and hospitality to strangers. The examples are drawn from two very distant parts of the world. The first is from the remote Tribal Areas of the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan.

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A young man drives late at night alone through the Tribal Areas on his way to Peshawar. These areas are considered unsettled, and traffic comes to a standstill in the afternoon. The young man has to hurry home. His car speeds through the winding narrow roads of the mountains near Kohat, the home of the famous Afridi warriors. The jonquil lights of the car pierce the darkening mists of the winter night. Not a soul is stirring. On either side of the road the mountains loom large and dark.

He is thinking of the famous incident in 1923 when the Afridis kidnapped Miss Ellis from the Kohat cantonment. It was an act of revenge against the British, and the empire responded with fire and thunder. Honour was at stake on both sides. When she was finally recovered from deep in the Tribal Areas, Miss Ellis told the world she had been honourably treated by her captors. On the instant she became an international celebrity. Today, when the British Empire has long vanished, she still recounts her story. And there is never any malice towards her captors.

The young man is lulled into half-slumber and suddenly he cannot take a curve fast enough. He skids off the road and into a ditch. The car lies helplessly on its side and he is miles from home late at night in one of the most ferocious areas of the world. A short time later, without warning, he sees ominous figures , armed with guns, looming around the car.

A voice speaks to him enquiring if he is injured. Fortunately he is not. But he is badly shaken. He is asked to follow his nocturnal companions home. He becomes apprehensive. He has heard recent stories of kidnapping and murder in the Tribal Areas. But he has no choice and follows them home.

The Afridi patriarch, a big man with a heavy red beard and shaven skull, greets him. He sets his mind at rest and orders his own sons to make the car road-worthy. There is, he observes solemnly, one condition. The traveller becomes tense. The condition is that the traveller must have dinner before leaving. Pleasant hours of companionship follow.

When the patriarch walks to the car to see off his guest, he has a suggestion. When the young man returns home, perhaps his father will be annoyed because of the damaged bumper, so may he offer money for repairs? The young man, already deep in the elder's debt, refuses. He drives away slowly to Peshawar, and the mountains no longer threaten.

Was it the famous Pathan code of hospitality, so valued in the Frontier, which motivated the Afridis? Or was it a more universal desire in people to help strangers in distress? Before I answer let me relate the other incident.

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A young Pakistani of 18 years and his younger sister, barely in her teens, arrived in London for schooling. This was their first trip to the West, and both felt bewildered and uncertain. The money, streets, names and language appeared strange. The young man entered his sister in a boarding convent school just outside London and left for Cambridge. Feeling claustrophobic and alone in the strange atmosphere, the girl panicked. She hastily packed some clothes in a suitcase and ran away to find her brother in Cambridge. She managed to board a train which would bring her to her destination, but she had no idea where to find him.

The flush of excitement passed and she confronted her journey with growing fear. Just then an old lady boarded the train and sat by her. When the ticket collector asked the girl for money it became clear she had none. The old lady intervened and paid for her. She, too, it appeared, was headed for Cambridge, where she lived. Once they got talking the lady realized that the girl had no idea where she was going and where she would stay. She chided her for behaving in such an impetuous manner and then insisted she stay with her. At Cambridge, the old lady not only kept her guest for the next couple of days -- spoiling her thoroughly -- but helped her locate her brother. They made an unlikely pair, the stern Victorian lady and the impetuous young Pakistani girl, but their affection was real.

What, then, did the frail old lady in Cambridge and the hardy tribal patriarch on the Frontier have in common? If the explanation rests on the assumption of civilized behaviour at Cambridge, how do we explain that of the tribesman, purportedly wild and unruly? Conversely, if we explain the behaviour of the tribal warrior in terms of his code of honour, how do we explain that of the old lady? The answer is that both were moved at that moment and through the encounter by a humanity transcending race, age and sex. By their actions they illustrated that no one people has a monopoly on goodness. And that however mankind is divided by passions generated on the basis of colour, caste and religion, there are still human beings who in their finest moments can effortlessly rise to sublime heights of goodness.

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