Clowning Beggars, Mapping Scams and Moral Hazards

I navigate nameless Indian streets, bump into pushy opportunists and well-schooled brats, survey a circus of histrionic scams, and contemplate cardiac disease.

Most Delhi streets had big green labels in Hindi and English.  Outside the capital, I’ve found street signs are often in local scripts, if there are signs at all.  To make things worse many roads have been officially renamed since British days to memorialise Indian independence heroes or politicians.  On my Bangalore map, for example, Fort Rd became Rajaram Mohanroy Rd, and Residency Rd is now FM Cariappa Rd (FM = Field Marshal).  Some streets are now called by either name, or abbreviated for a third possibility again.  This makes navigation difficult for hapless foreigners like your humble correspondent, especially when few rickshaw-wallahs speak English.

Crossing the road was also harder in Jaipur, with no underpasses like in Delhi and the most animals I’ve seen.  As well as the usual Indian civic farmyard, camels plodded along pulling carts, while monkeys scampered around refuse and rooftops.  Traffic density is extreme, on both right and wrong sides of the road if not the footpath, so you need to look in all directions at all times.  When a fleeting gap in the flood at last appears, a rickshaw driver swoops in to block your way with a hopeful grin – “No!  Go away!  Move!”

camels-jaipurLacking 360-degree vision, I once stepped from behind a stationary rickshaw and collided with a pedestrian.  I apologised, and got safely across the road with the usual sigh of relief.  Then I felt a tug at my arm: the angry face of the guy I’d hit.  Scruffy-looking and obviously unhurt, seizing the opportunity when he saw I was foreign.  I repeated, “Maaf kijiye, sorry!”  He said “very offended, sorry no”, holding out his hand to demand money.  A shopkeeper told him to get lost, and I scampered while they argued.

It was my most unpleasant encounter so far, though beggars can also be difficult.  Some sit quietly by temple, church or railway entrances.  There are elderly women with wrinkled grandmotherly faces and gentle courteous pleading.  But the kids may follow you with hungry persistence.  Offering food is a recommended approach and beggars often welcomed a slice of bread on my first trip to Bangalore.  Several times up here, however, my bread rolls or bananas have been scornfully rejected with cries of “money money!”  The little brats have been schooled.  With a group clustered around me, I feel quite vulnerable.  Should all those little hands launch a coordinated attack, it’d be hard to defend my pockets, and I’ve been told many beggars work for “mafia”.  Most locals just tell them to scram, sometimes even on my behalf.

jaipur-pepsi-camelIn New Delhi’s Connaught Place, a boy collared me, with agonized face and voice weakened by hunger, miming his need for food by putting his hand in his mouth.  Older than usual, and unusually pushy, he seemed almost melodramatic.  When he finally gave up following, I heard, loud and clear, in perfectly articulated English, “F you F-ing man”.  Two passing women tittered, enjoying the performance.  Not for nothing is the ring road called Connaught Circus: foreign clowns provide good sport.

I’ve yet to witness the shoe-poo scam.  Many a tourist, I’ve read, spots a tidy worm of excrement on their foot just as a shoeshine man providentially shows up to clean it off.  Of course he or his mate has just planted it.  I guess my cracked sneakers or old sandals aren’t polishable enough for them to bother, or I looked too poor.

The Hotel Pearl Palace produced a pink booklet “Jaipur for Aliens” which advises its customers, “The Hotel is not responsible for the persistent auto-rickshaws standing in the street.  They are not contracted with the Hotel” – despite what they may claim.  It goes on to warn against over-friendly strangers: “They might harm you financially by gaining your confidence”.  There are various gem scams, some run by bogus palmists and astrologers who may even give correct predictions, before selling you costly stones at bargain rates to cure your ills.  You’ll get home to find, if they arrive at all, you’ve bought pretty pieces of glass.

Peter Colaco Bangalore CoverIn his book of memories, Bangalore: a Century of Tales from City and Cantonment (2003) Peter Colaco recalled “performing artists of the road”.  In the days before heavy motor vehicle traffic, he once found a man unconscious on the street, frothing at the mouth, apparently collapsed from starvation.  Indignant at the lack of neighbourhood charity – passers-by just walked on – Colaco dragged the unfortunate to safety on the footpath, heard his tale of woe, and gave him money for a meal.  A few weeks later he happened upon the same man spread-eagled on another street.  This time he sat on a stone bench and waited for the comedy when someone else took pity:

As soon as the good Samaritan was out of sight, he wriggled back to the middle of the road and re-assumed his carefully arranged pose, of a man who has accidentally collapsed.  For the first time I became aware of Beggary as a Performing Art.

Then, Colaco remembers, there was Cycle Lamp Charlie.  A soft-spoken gent would approach with evident embarrassment.  Could you spare a rupee or two?  Someone had stolen the kerosene from his bicycle lamp and he had to cycle home.  The streets were dark, the police ruthless in prosecuting those without a light.  And there was a charismatic couple of crippled lepers who pushed each other around in a cart and asked for money when it was broken – now one couldn’t walk, now the other.  Colaco concludes:

You know that beggary is a social evil, that you should not give in.  You know you should give to developmental organisations.  Beggars know you have a streak of guilt, they can work on it with the precision of a micro-surgeon.  You know that you are being conned, but you give, often with a smile.

I must be less compassionate than him.  I find it easy to refuse and am disturbed to notice that I have similar psychological reactions to begging street children and stray dogs: dislike, apprehension and avoidance.

Before I came here I heard of experienced India travellers who recommend you never give money to beggars.  I heard of one woman who did and was mobbed by mendicants.  Surrounded and terrified, she was rescued by a policeman.  Some Indian friends say they do give a few coins to the elderly or crippled, those clearly in need.

Maybe locals could judge, but how can I tell who is genuine?  Blanket refusal seemed the safest policy, confirmed by stories of fake or criminal scans like those above, and has been my position until recently.

But I’ve reflected some more.  Hard and fast ethical rules can be a convenient excuse to avoid responsibility for one’s own actions and evade the effort of growing in wisdom yourself, to oversimplify real-life issues so you look at a needy individual face and see only generic cynical statistics.  I’ve decided I will sometimes give a coin or two, when a begger is visibly in need but doesn’t melodramatically market his plight or attack like a slick-talking salesmen, when I’m away from tourist sites that are likely monopolised by professional fraudsters, and the supplicant seems to be safely alone.

Sometimes, maybe often, I’ll get it wrong and my rupees will only fatten the master of a begging gang.  But I’ve come to realise there is a far greater risk if I consistently ignore the misery I see: growing hard of heart.  I don’t want my soul to shrivel and lose compassion out of fear of being deceived, to end up refusing those I could have slightly helped, or to end up rebuffing, for example, the many friendly kids who run up with winning smiles and ask me to take their photo.  A few belligerently demand “photo money”, but most are innocently delighted to see themselves posing on my camera screen and then happily wave goodbye.  They often ask to see coins or stamps and I wish I’d brought such tokens of New Zealand to show them.

On one rickshaw ride home, I passed a woman cooking on a traffic island, her pot over a little fire between bricks.  Then I realized with a start that she wasn’t a hawker selling meals: that was her kitchen, outside a tarpaulin that housed her offspring.  I think it’s important, having witnessed poverty and distress, that we in some way respond with more than a little loose change.  As in 2007, I’ve determined when I return home to donate to groups like Tear Fund and The Leprosy Mission, the sort of developmental organisations that Colaco mentions, who work in places like India and will spend their resources far more wisely than I could.