Tag Archives: Peter Colaco

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.

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Mud and Silicon: Growing up in Bangalore

Boiled beans, brave hares and anti-British rockets; pensioners, prangs and Frogger; camera curiosity and wobbling ambiguity, lakeside laughter and David’s departure.

The city of Bangalore has come a long way.  Around 1100 A.D. a king was lost while hunting and sheltered at an old lady’s cottage.  He named a new settlement, so the story goes, for the simple meal she gave him: Bengaluru first meant “Village of Boiled Beans”.  400 years later, a local chief saw his dog chased away by a hare.  He was so impressed by the bunny’s courage that he built a mud fort on the site.  His grandson erected four watchtowers on surrounding hills, dug tanks to harvest water, and a real town was born.

In the 18th century, a powerful Muslim ruler moved in, Tipu Sultan.  I visited his botanical gardens and palace during my last week.  The “Tiger of Mysore” allied himself with France and hated the British.  He built a life-size model of a tiger mauling a British officer, complete with internal pipes to sound the Englishman’s groans.  He invented rockets that shot swords from wheeled launchers and trained his troops to calculate angles for targets up to a kilometre away.  He once forced the Duke of Wellington to retreat (he regained his honour at Waterloo).

The British defeated and killed Tipu Sultan in 1799, and an army cantonment was established at Bangalore, as you can still see on a map.  I caught the train to and from Cantonment Station, stayed at a guest-house on Infantry Road, marched past the Parade Ground and down Brigade Road.  Civilians were also drawn to the elevated town that represented “India without its scorching sun, Europe without its snow”.

At Independence in 1947, Bangalore’s population was only 600,000.  It was called the Garden City, the Pensioners’ Paradise, a tranquil escape from centres like Bombay.  From the 1990s, however, international IT companies moved in.  Bangalore became India’s Silicon Valley and the population has boomed to 6 million or more.

Peter Colaco Bangalore CoverIn Bangalore: A Century of Tales from City and Cantonment (2003) long-term resident Peter Colaco reminisces about the changes he has seen (see reviews here and here).  In his youth the city was a quiet hill station, “a lazy little place… space and grace personified” where he rode his bike down open roads with no traffic lights.  In 1958 there was only one horse-drawn carriage left.  Now the streets are a nightmare.

I arrived in India with trepidation, fearing theft and sickness, but statistically my greatest danger was traffic.  A Bangalore Traffic Police “Road Accidents Awareness” sign reported 395 fatalities and 2719 injuries from 1 January to 31 May this year.  In three decades I’ve never witnessed an accident in New Zealand, but in two months I have here.  In Bangalore a car pranged an auto-rickshaw.  Surrounding auto drivers leapt out to berate the motorist.  In Hyderabad a motorbike hit a pedestrian.  The latter limped off cursing and the former lay on the ground as my auto-rickshaw pulled away.  And in Chennai, walking down the street because the footpath was fenced off, my shoulder knocked in the wing mirror of a van.  Fortunately it was moving slowly.

I’ve come a long way since I first stumbled in shock down the Whitefield roads, but crossing streets continues to be fun.  It’s a sort of live action Frogger game, except the traffic doesn’t always travel in predictable straight lines.  Intersections are often governed by a muddle of both lights and a policeman directing.  One time I thought a wide road was clear.  Half way across, a wall of motorbikes and rickshaws bore down on me.  I started to slowly back off as they swerved to both sides of me, then just stood still and prayed!

No one has mauled me as Tipu Sultan did the Brits, although hawkers and auto-rickshaw drivers have come close.  At first I felt awkward when people asked how much my camera cost.  I mostly say I’m not sure: it was a gift from my parents.  Which is true, but I know it cost several hundred dollars.  And I know a simple meal costs me 60 cents at a CBD café and locals could eat for less.  I estimate the price of my camera might feed a family for a year.

In their shoes, I’d be fuming at the injustice and launching rockets like the Tiger Sultan did, but they show no resentment.  Indians are simply curious about the sort of details we mostly don’t discuss – like how much you earn.  Most people here seem content, grateful for what they do have, unlike Westerners who have so much and envy others who have more.

In fact the camera has been a bridge to friendly encounters.  I’m shy about photographing people (especially women, most especially covered Muslim women) and always ask or gesture for permission.  They mostly wobble their head in reply.  I’ve heard the Indian head-wobble can mean “yes” or can mean “no”, or maybe “don’t know”, or convey other subtleties that leave me unclear, but there is mostly a smile.

A few stall holders object or want money, but many more love being photographed.  Some ask for a click when my camera isn’t even out, or run up to join their neighbour in the frame.  In the flower market, a man gave me tea and a button-hole rose, then begged for a photo, although I said it was too dark.  “Please sir, you’re breaking my heart!”  Going digital is wonderful.  Both children and adults love seeing themselves and their friends cluster around to point out a “brother” in the camera screen as an “Indian monkey”.

As well as sharing their friendship, I’m beginning to taste their frustration.  This country has so much potential and so much is wasted.  On my final day in town, I went to see Ulsoor Lake.  Fountains were playing among the artificial islands, but the shore line was fenced off.  I found a little park with a playground, hedges and shady seats, but the gate was locked.  A few fishermen dangled lines from the concrete area outside.  Pedal boats floated unused, covered with leaves, inside a dilapidated boat shed.  The place could be so nice with so little work.  In another park, where bats hung from trees, I noticed a sign for a laughing club – I’d heard but scarce believed that people gather early mornings just to chuckle!  Maybe it’s the only way to survive.

After being away for three weeks, bouncing down the dirt road of the Ecumenical Christian Centre felt like coming home.  I was even back in my same corner room.  I relaxed among the familiar faces, though missed the Minnesotans, and relished the green grounds.  A new sign had appeared with a challenge for India and the West – a list of Gandhi’s Seven Deadly Sins:

Wealth without work, pleasure without conscience, science without humanity, knowledge without character, politics without principle, commerce without morality, worship without sacrifice.

The last nights I was invited to two staff homes and found myself eating alone at 7pm – locals don’t eat till 9 or 10pm.  They asked whether it’s the case that in the West we need an invitation to visit someone’s house, you don’t just pop in.  I was sad that it’s often true – we rich are less hospitable – and that they’ll never afford an air ticket to see for themselves.

Bangalore has come a long way in two decades.  So have I in two months.  At the airport check in, I saw a minor squabble over the ambiguous queuing.  I wasn’t surprised – don’t these Indians know this is India: why expect a tidy order?  I was afraid I had packed too much, but the industrial kitchen scale at the ECC must have overestimated my weight.  My luggage wasn’t bursting as much as my brain is after all I’ve experienced here.  I could have bought a few more books.