A stony heart is essential if you are living and travelling in India. The hoopla of economic growth and prosperity feels like sheer blasphemy as you take in the sights of streets.
Daily I see destitution drowning to abysmal levels and am beseeched by crippled old men, wailing mothers and children with running noses asking for alms. Sitting along the footpath, at traffic signals, busy bus stops and railway stations – they are everywhere!
From start, we have been instructed to never give money to them. It seems heartless if you have not been exposed to this side of life in India. No harm in giving 10-20 rupees against the thousands that we spend on a single night out, right? Sadly, begging is now a business growing by leaps and bounds. The beggars belong to a ‘chief’ where they handover the day’s ‘earnings’ where a major chunk is retained by those ring-leaders. The sleeping baby in the women’s arms has probably been taken on ‘rent’ from the mother and drugged to keep it docile. And quite often, they consider begging an easier way to earn money than to actually work for it.
I know all this. My brain constantly reminds me of this business when faced with crying women and children begging for help. And even though I don’t hand over money, there is this tightening somewhere inside that makes it difficult to swallow and stomach the plight of these people. They may be a gang weaving a ton of sob stories to soften my heart, but there is no denying that their condition is desperate. And however cold I try to be, I simply cannot rid myself of those images.
Taking a leaf out of my friend’s book, I get children vegetable sandwiches or opened biscuit packets. Now this is where it gets interesting. While most of the kids gobble it down with genuine smiles, twice I have seen them throwing down the food and demand money. A friend got a donut from Dunkin’ Donuts and the kid gave him a priceless look of disdain. Only when he was told the price of the donut did the glee take over. So even though they lament about starvation, some only want money and have no qualms about disrespecting the food.
Which doesn’t help my feelings. It makes me question my beliefs about what is right and wrong. On one hand I find it impossible to turn my back completely, but on the other when I face them it is disheartening to see the callousness. Maybe they have accepted their state of life and will readily turn to shady businesses to earn some dough. The system isn’t really helping them so there is no reason why they should abide and play nice! I try by helping out at municipal schools and with local housekeepers; it eases the conscience to some extent at least. But…
There are thousands like me who want to try and are trying already across India and other countries as well. We force ourselves to not give in to the harsh reality but every day the cries of the streets beckon, beginning a new cycle of second-guessing. Any answers?