Wednesday, February 22, 2012


She wanted money for a shroud for her dead husband. I glanced across the road. Indeed, somebody lay on the pavement. I didn’t know if he was dead, but I didn’t know if he wasn’t dead. So I gave her some money. She moved on. I wondered how much a shroud costs. Then the traffic lights changed.

A few days later, she was back. Her husband lay dead, she said. I glanced left (yes, a man lay motionless on the pavement), and smiled at her. “I know. I helped pay for his shroud, remember?”

A month later, she came up again. This time, I burst out laughing. I didn’t need to say anything. She hurried away.

Then I stopped seeing her. Maybe the scam ran dry at this traffic signal. Or maybe somebody complained to the cops. Maybe they put her in the beggar’s home.

Then I began to think of an elderly couple who had accosted me in Delhi, about five years ago. They were dressed like Rajasthani farmers and said they were looking for their son. He went to Delhi and disappeared. They didn’t have enough money for bus tickets to go home. My first thought was: “Scam.” My second thought was: “If this was a movie, you’d be the heartless metro-bred ‘extra’ who walks past the hero’s desperate mom.” 

I gave them the money. I never saw them again.

Last week, on a skywalk, I heard someone say: “Didi… vada-pav…” 

To my right, there was a young couple. A travel bag between them. Two toddlers asleep, bent over the bag. My first thought was: “They don’t look like beggars… farmer-migrants?”

I walked on, then looked over my shoulder. The couple was sitting down, as if it took all their courage and dignity to ask for food, as if they needed to recoup before asking again.There was a vada-pav stall nearby. I bought four and ran back. Another woman was also rushing back, bringing some food. None of us could meet each other’s eyes.

I never saw the family again. Perhaps they found somewhere to go. Relatives, jobs? Or perhaps they were hauled off by the cops.

I remember reading a news report a few months ago about how a ‘poorly dressed’ woman who was put in the beggar’s home. She had a skin disorder that was being treated inMumbai, and was on her way back to Nagpur. But she was hauled off by cops who thought she was a beggar.

Because, according to our laws, beggars can be put away. We cannot ensure a nation in which there are no beggars. So we lock them out of sight. We can’t force them to work. Many beggars are ill, or disabled, or addicted, or homeless. I doubt we can find them minimum-wage jobs or decent hospitals. And yes, they need protection — from thugs, from traffickers — but must we take their freedom?

The non-beggar lady who was sent to the beggar’s home in Chembur told the newspaper that she was kept in a room with 75 other ‘beggars’. She was asked to strip and bathed communally by having “a mug of water splashed on each of us”.

I think now of that elderly Rajasthani couple, the young family on the skywalk. Perhaps they were professional beggars. Perhaps they scammed me. Do they deserve to be locked up in a room with 75 people? Is this our idea of a dignified ‘Home’ for the desperately poor?

Read full piece here

1 comment:

sunil deepak said...

Reading it brought back so many memories of my own ghosts.

In retrospect, I feel that better to be made a fool off and ripped off for 10-20 bucks then to be heartless and leave someone who might really need help.

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