Phenol Boy

Early June

One morning while stepping into Jayeshbhai’s house, I walked into a conversation involving five middle-aged, wealthy men. Jayeshbhai was sharing the story of his local phenol boy with these men of influence and power.

A few weeks ago, Jayeshbhai heard the vending cries of one of the many street hawkers that make their way down the narrow lane his bungalow sits on.

“Pheeeenol! Pheeeeeeenol!” went the cry. Some time earlier, his mother had mentioned to him that she was spending time helping the boy who sold phenol, also known as carbolic acid, commonly used as a bathroom antiseptic in India. Jayeshbhai decided to run out to the street and meet the guy himself. After a short conversation, Jayeshbhai asked the boy (actually in his early twenties) if he had any bidis (Indian cigarettes) or masala (slang for chewing tobacco). The guy did, and Jayeshbhai asked for it. The guy parted with it readily, and Jayeshbhai explained the manifold dangers of tobacco and asked him to pledge to give up tobacco. The guy agreed. Jayeshbhai asked him to raise his hand and make a solemn vow to give up his addiction. When he did so, Jayeshbhai noticed that one hand remained bent in clutch shape as a result of countless hours of carrying around a bucket of phenol. The phenol had also scarred his hand from acid splashes, and had two fingers partially amputated just after the second joint. Jayeshbhai examined his other hand to find that it was ok, except for horribly long fingernails. Jayeshbhai immediately pulled out his nail cutter and started clipping the guy’s nails, educating him on how something like 40% of India’s stomach-related illnesses were attributed to the transmission of filth under people’s long fingernails. While trimming the guy’s nails, Jayeshbhai accidentally cut one nail too far and drew blood. The man’s hand instantly flew into his mouth, but he was completely unbothered. Jayeshbhai felt horrible, and cringed that he had caused someone pain, but the guy said that it was no problem and would heal quickly. This sent Jayeshbhai’s mind spinning… thinking about how this man’s reaction differed from the standard response of returning a kick for every prick received. Jayeshbhai was touched at how deeply the guy felt that his nails were being cut out of love, and that a mistake like a cut didn’t matter in the face of such great love. Jayeshbhai noticed that the man’s flip-flops were in bad shape, and offered him a new pair of donated Nike sandals. The man refused, saying that he required nothing beyond a simple pair of Rs. 15 flip-flops. Jayeshbhai was impressed at his simplicity and desire to accept nothing beyond what he needed, and happily gave him the basic flip-flops from the donated stock.

A couple weeks later, Jayeshbhai heard the phenol cry again, and ran out to meet the guy. He asked him if he was smoking or chewing tobacco again. The guy said he wasn’t. Jayeshbhai decided to check all his pockets to confirm the absence of contraband, only to be surprised that he was indeed tobacco-free. The guy told Jayeshbhai that if he owed it to himself to take care of his health if Jayeshbhai was also going out of his way to lovingly care for him. Jayeshbhai was moved by the guy’s love logic, and asked what else he could do for him. The guy said that it would be a great help if he had a bigger container in which to carry his phenol. The proper container would save him time in fetching is second and third buckets, and would also have a better handle that would be easier on his disfigured hand. Jayeshbhai agreed to purchase the Rs. 100 container, and shared the story of his worldwide cadre of friends who donated money to help spread kindness in the world. He asked the guy to repay the Rs. 100 through his daily savings of tobacco money and the increased income from his improved phenol container.

Jayeshbhai concluded the story by telling his gathered friends that money should only be given in a way that greed does not arise, that dependency is not created, and that self-respect is not damaged. He talked about the four things that stood out for him about the experience: 1. simplicity of the heart makes one greed-resistant 2. that love has a great deal of power—someone drawing blood from the man in the absence of love would have met with a different reaction 3. love transforms both the recipient and the giver—in this case freeing a man from addiction 4. soft loans to people demonstrating values like greed-resistance was a strong way to make effective use of his anonymous kindness cash endowment.

The assembled men were all moved by the story, reflecting on how often they had let opportunities of transformative service to others pass them by. Jayeshbhai asked them all to keep their eyes open, and to try and do five acts of random, but wisdom-based service and to share the stories next time he saw them. This started a whirlwind of conversations that resulted in a lot of interesting snippets that I’ll share in another dispatch.