THE BEGGARS OF INDIA
As I emerged from the taxi at Air India in Bombay, I was checking my change in my hands. As I raised my head, I found I was staring eight inches from my face inside the head of a man with no nose. He raised hands with fingerless stumps and in a demanding voice said, “Baksheesh.” Startled and shocked I dropped my change and backed quickly into the Air India office. The leper had shown me another way the beggars of India had of impacting my emotions to trigger my willingness to give.
My observations of the various ways beggars use to extract alms had started five weeks earlier when I joined a group of Brits in the Bogy, a railroad car, under the leadership of Ashley Butterfield on a 5000 mile, six week ramble through India.
There were 26 of us in the Bogy that was both our home and our transportation. It was moved, mostly at night, and left on sidings during our stay in a city. We slept on tissue thin mattresses, shoulder to shoulder on a steel floor. Many of our meals we cooked over a charcoal fire in a central kitchen area.
These basic travel arrangements placed us in very close contact with the people of India.
Within hours of joining the Bogy in New Delhi I began to learn about beggars, unlearn some of my caring behavior and discover hardness in myself that still alarms me. At first I gave small coins to beggars recognizing it wasn’t much money I was giving away. Giving rupees to beggars, however, brought about reactions from them which caused me to draw back from giving. I would give a few coins and immediately be surrounded by a myriad of outstretched hands and a host of pleading voices. To me it was like the feeding frenzy of carp in a pool when you drop in a handful of bread crumbs, a swilling mass of color which loses its form in movement.
After being hounded in a maniacal way when I gave out baksheesh on several more occasions, I concluded that if I were to sell everything I own, draw out my savings, drop it all in a street in New Delhi and in an hour New Delhi, much less Indian would be totally unchanged. All of my wealth could be shared with the dispossessed and the sea of poverty would close over it and leave not a ripple.
To dole out rupees could also place you in another plight. I saw a demonstration of this on a beach in Bombay, where a well dressed young American handed out some coins and was immediately surrounded. He stood affixed with a beggar holding on to each leg, others holding on to his arms and still others blocking his path in the event he got free. All were pleading for baksheesh. Having given alms he had become a prisoner of his own generosity.
The first week of the trip when we were on a siding in Rishikesh, a holy city at the foothills of the Himalayas, I began to focus on what was going on, trying to understand why so many otherwise healthy people begged for a living. I asked some of the locals of this most religious city. The answer? It was their station in life. This is what they were born to do. As one Indian explained to me, “But it is their dharma. It gives their lives an order by which to live. It is the will of the gods. To do otherwise would damage their Karma and in the next turn of the wheel of life they would take a step backward.”
My informant believed that only by living according to certain preset laws for your caste in this life would you expect to do better the next time you came around.
These beliefs led parents to a brutality that grew out of kindness and concern for their children’s welfare. Some parents felt they could help their offspring by giving them a physical disfigurement to make them more successful as beggars. They knew that a healthy, well formed child would not have as easy a time on the streets as one who had an obvious defect with which to attract sympathy and rupees. Two that seemed common were, a crushed hand looking like a claw and a burn scar on the side of the face down into the neck. I saw these as doing much to tap into the compassion of passers-by.
How did the Indians react to these beggar ploys? They seemed often to look right through the beggars. In fact, as our group learned to do this, beggars became much less of a problem.
Frommer in his guide book gives a rationalization that would meet many people’s needs. “You may find it hard to resist some of these pathetic types, but please do. According to our Indian friends, these are professionals who are often more well off than you.” Such was not my observation.
Nor did I agree with Fodor who said, “India has a very large number of beggars, partly because it is so profitable.”
Ashley encouraged us to be selective about helping beggars. For example, from my journal, “November 5, Rishikesh. Fought my way through the hanging laundry to the kitchen area where Frank was having a cup of coffee. He was our cook yesterday and since it was feed the beggars’ day he worked most of the day cooking. The beggars are Hindu so all he cooked was vegetables. We had 30 beggars and fed them before we ate. It was so dark I didn’t get a good look at this bunch. Afterwards Jane gave away all the clothes left from the travelers on previous Bogy trip. Since my suitcase has not shown up, I managed to beg a towel from her before she gave it away so I now have two.
November 6. The main smell of India is ammonia from urine and smoke from the burning of dried cow dung, which is the fuel of India. The stench pervades everything except where the smell of curry or a burning joss stick overwhelms it. As I write a beggar stands outside the open car window asking for something. Money I presume. Not getting a reaction to his high pitched chant he stops and begins using our thrown out ashes to clean his teeth.
The way Indians sit even when there are chairs available make them look very small. They sit knees to chest or legs crossed yogi position. I am amazed at how limber they are. Here in Rihikesh, the seventh holiest city in Indian, one buys very small coins so he can be very generous for 25 cents to the beggars who line the streets with their little cups. Most of them look healthy—but one boy with a very deformed arm seemed to do especially well. One gets merit for giving to beggars in a holy city. There is much merit to be had here in Rishikesh.
“Later in the day a religious man picked me out as a mark and began to shadow me closely. These holy men are considered by the Indians as separate from the beggars. He wore a yellow robe, had a beard and carries the begging can for rice which must be given willingly. According to these rules he can’t beg. By the use of his eyes he managed to convey that would be appreciated, since I had no rice at hand. So I obliged.”
Later this note from near Lucknow, “Tonight was the first time we have eaten surrounded by beggars. Seventeen of them, who just sat in a circle around us staring at us eating the way a hungry dog does when it wants the scraps from your table. For some reason at this point it didn’t bother me.
The boredom of a beggar’s life must be tremendous. They mostly sit. No wonder they stand at the windows of our Bogy and stare when we come into a station. Some can be very persistent in their pleading. A mere no or complete avoidance is not enough. They hang in there and keep working on you. Two little lads worked on Julia and me for six blocks last night.