Parenting! At the traffic signal…

The tap  at the window makes me look away from the countdown of the clock at the traffic light. A woman dressed in a shabby saree has stuck her face to my windowpane. Seeing that she has caught my eye,   she makes a gesture to indicate that she wants some food. I look into her eyes, the desperation in them seems genuine. I look at the purse kept next to me. But my hands don’t reach out to it.

Instead, my mind goes to all the horror stories I have heard about  organized begging. Children being pulled out of schools / kidnapped/  forcefully restrained and even maimed and made to beg, drug habits cultivated to ensure ‘victims’ stay in the begging circle, babies being rented from slums to increase the  “pitiable” factor. “When we give alms to beggars we do them more harm than good”, I have sometimes been told. I have never been able to make up mind about this though.  And every time a beggar approaches me on the road, the dilemma pops up – fresh as ever. Always Unresolvable!

I look at the woman again trying to make up my mind. I nod negatively, trying to indicate that I will not give her anything.  But my ‘no’ doesn’t have enough conviction or determination. She senses the doubt and lingers at my side.  Tapping, making the same desperate gesture, trying to appeal to the doubt in my eyes.

My six-year-old son sitting on the rear seat has been watching all this intently. ” What happened Mumma?”. I decide to put my dilemma to him. Kabir she wants some money.  I can’t decide what to do? “Give it Mumma” , pat comes the reply. Unhesitatingly, quickly, without a trace of doubt.

Just then the traffic light turns green and the impatient honking of the cars behind me forces me to move on! Kabir, quickly stands  on his seat , Turning around to scour through  the rear windshield.  “Mumma there she is! Should I call her?” . ” No baby, we can’t stop now”. “Yes, but we can call out to her and then we can take a U-turn and go back” he replies innocently. I can’t help smile, at the easiness of it.

I had intended to explain to him the depth of the issue. About  the racket! How the money we give may end up in the hands of a mafia and  cause more harm than good. How we may be inadvertently encouraging  children  to be kept away from schools, or kidnapped or maimed. But the guileless sympathy in his voice, kept me quiet. It was too precious! why be in a hurry to kill it right now? It may die soon enough!

I recalled the incident that had robbed me, of mine. I had just started my first job as a junior researcher for an NGO. During my training as a social worker. I had met gangs of street children. Heard their heart wrenching stories of abduction, forced begging, drug habits, rape and violence. I had begun to appreciate the complexity of the issues in their lives. I had learnt that they needed much more than just a few coins to regain their lives.

Going on my scooter I spied an obviously pregnant young woman being supported by an older woman. From the way they dressed they both looked like village women. Up ahead they were approaching the other commuters, obviously asking for help. No one paid any attention to their obvious plight. My heart ached. I called out to them. It seemed the younger one had started labour pains and they wanted money to take her to the hospital. I offered to drop them on my scooter. But they refused. “She needs an auto-rickshaw.  she can’t really go on a scooter.” Seemed sensible and I was in-fact,  getting late for work. I pulled out all the money I had in my bag.  Rupees three hundred and gave it to them. Other commuters looked on. I glared at them, silently admonishing them for their lack of sympathy.I thought about the woman all day.

Three days later at another signal I came upon the same duo. Instead of being angry or challenging them, I felt  ashamed.  Ashamed, that I fell for their silly trick! Also a bit ashamed that they needed to resort to such lies to earn a few bucks. But looking back I can say, that at least some seeds of cynicism may have been  sown that day. From them on, I have no clear policy on dealing with begging. Each time a beggar approaches me I make  on the spot decisions .  Sometimes handing over some loose change, at others buying them some food (so at least they can eat), sometimes refusing outright. My stand is not clearly defined. And no matter what I do,  it always leaves me the uncomfortable feeling that I may have done them more harm than good. Or certainly not done enough.

Should I explain all this to kabir. Help him see the various aspects of the issue. Make him understand that begging is a manifestation of a larger socio – economic problem – poverty. And that simply handing out money while assuages our guilt may be doing nothing to really help the beggar. How should I word it so while he appreciates the depth of the problem he  does not lose his sympathy for its victims – the beggars!

At the next signal, a little beggar girl, in a dirty frock and matted hair came to us. As she knocked on our window, I looked at her. Even if the dirt and desperation were an act. The poverty was real. I turned back to see Kabir, looking at me intently. I instantly made a decision. I reached into my purse and handed him some coins. He opened his window and gave them to the girl.

Better to teach him the lesson of sympathy than understand the complexities of life at this age. Let him coin his own dilemmas when he becomes older.  I relaxed and  turned on the radio. Even though it may be ‘wrong ‘ Giving (even though not enough)certainly brought more satisfaction than not giving at all. Just when we were about to reach home. Kabir spoke up again. “Mom how much did we give that girl?”. “Two coins” I said. “How many rupees was that?” he asked. “Two I think”. I answered. “Mumma is that enough to get her food?” That hit me like a bag of stones. I mentally kicked myself . Where was my mind? Had I just taught my son a lesson in empathy or  ‘tokenism’?

Not sure about what to say,I kept quiet.  “I am sure two rupees are a lot! Aren’t they mumma?  My friend gets two rupees a week for pocket -money!” and he happily skipped away.

I was glad the moment was over. Thank god for  innocence! I know I will get a second chance. And then I will be better  prepared, to teach the lesson better.

Have you ever faced a similar dilemma? What do you do when a beggar approaches you?


23 Comments Add yours

  1. sudhavgoel says:

    the same incident happened with me.a pregnant lady with a companion .she seemed as if in labour,and wanted daughter and my son in law to be were in the car with me.i shifted in my back seat and asked them to be seated so i cud drop them at the hospital.but they refused and wanted only money.helpless i gave them money.then shailesh told me ,that it was all fake.and true enough the next day,at the same red light crossing the duo were if about to deliver on the road.sapna this is a big ? we help or not?

    1. don’t know mumma. Obviously this is outright cheating and doesn’t deserve help. But what if sometime someone is actually in need. How does one judge the really needy from the fake.

  2. Most of the times my heart comes in the way and wins. 😦

    1. and that calls for a happy face 🙂

  3. So, it is with me too.. Heart says yes, brain says no. I am left damned confused. 5 years of the watching the same thing at every street corner, I am yet to get accustomed..

    Don’t worry about Kabir, don’t explain it to him right now, or he may lose his innocence sooner than needed.
    In this context I would like to add some more of my thoughts though they are away from the point. I have seen parents boasting about how much their kids know at a very young age, how smart and modern they are and so on. Those whose kids aren’t so smart often feel belittled. My observation says that premature loss of innocence doesn’t make kids smarter, it just makes them grow up faster than needed, like ripening of raw mangoes using carbide. They may look nice, but they aren’t actually good inside.

    1. “like ripening of raw mangoes using carbide. ” well put somesh! I know what you mean. After all childhood is such a beautiful phase. why rush through it?

  4. nicola baird says:

    This is very interesting, and perhaps always needs revising depending on your own situation and where you are living (and the work you do). In London my policy is to give food (if I have it). But it is illegal for children to beg so it’s not such an emotional decision. Last night waiting for the bus about 10pm I thought a homeless old bloke had sat down beside me. He was in a hoody sweatshirt and had a crutch. After a long internal debate I’d decided to offer him an apple, when he spoke to me – about the Richard III play he’d just watched (as I had) making it clear he was not homeless, just waiting for a bus. Thank goodness he started speaking to me, what an idiot I’d have felt offering that apple (I’ve had a good laugh at myself for being a bleeding heart liberal though) Nicola

    1. ha ha that would have been something! an apple for the seemingly homeless. In India beggars are omnipresent specially outside temples and at traffic signals! and as I mention in the post, the problem is not as simple as to give or not to give but very complex

  5. dilipnaidu says:

    Interesting narration of happenings we come across often. In my case after having similar experience I draw the line and only give assistance to someone really old and infirm.

    Thanks & regards.

    1. Drawing the line! i seem to find that very difficult in this matter. The babies get to me ….. there was a time i had taken to giving packets of milk …. was very unpractical though 🙂 thanks for stopping Dilip!

  6. This is challenging situation, and it sounds like your decision-making is well-founded. I’ve struggled with these kinds of issues when living and/or working outside the US–espcially in Haiti and India, where the poverty was so, so dreadful. I’ve yet to comfortably deal with this issue, though now that I’ve been home in the US for a year, I’ve had to deal with the problem less regualrly.

    Just wanted to thank you for the comments you’ve left on my blog and to return the visit. I’m going to subscribe. I noticed that you said you’re not a writer, but you write very, very well.


    1. thank you Kathryn for the visit and for the encouraging words. you know A friend told me about someone who had taken to carrying little packets of biscuits in his car always. Each time a beggar child approached him, he handed one out.I thought that was brilliant. But, in a few days the kids started started recognizing him and when they approached his car would say telling him ” we don’t want biscuits, just money” . That had me floored!

  7. Dhiraj kapoor says:

    Excellent read Sapna,

    I have a totally different view on this. I as a father of a 5 year old daughter, I believe in laying the facts/truth in front of her in as simple terms as possible and then let her decide what is wrong and what is right. She usually gets the drift and makes the correct decision.

    About a year back at one traffic signal, like Kabir asked in all his innocence, she also had questions about begging. We had to explain things to her and tell her why begging was wrong. (BTW I do not support begging and never give alms)

    Now, last month when we drove to Spiti, at stops we had village kids collecting around the car, more out of curiosity and also to make friends with my daughter than any thing else. My daughter was surprised that they were not asking for money. Here is the conversation that followed

    Daughter : Papa they are not asking for money, they are not begging, so can we give them now?
    Me : Dont you think they would be happy receiving toffee’s more than money? At least
    they can eat the toffee’s, the money they will give to their Mummy for safe keeping.
    Daughter : Yeah, good idea, lets buy toffee’s for them
    Me : But you receive toffee’s/ treats when you have done something good, there should be a reason why you give the kids a toffee?
    Daughter: For those who go to school??
    Me: Sure

    So we bought a packet of toffee’s and she kept distributing to the kids at the villages we visited. The happiness we saw on the faces of the giver and the receiver was unreal. A memory to cherish for long

    Now back at Jaipur at traffic signals, she just ignores the beggars as she know’s they have not done anything to receive a “treat”.

    ^^^^^^^Sorry for the long post

    1. wonderful idea dhiraj. that is truly a great lesson you’ve managed to teach the little one. your daughter is lucky her parents are clear in their heads. kabir’s mom doesn’t have that clear a head over her shoulders :() BTW, long comments are awesome

      1. Dhiraj kapoor says:

        I believe that there is nothing wrong and nothing right in parenting. Everyone has different ways of handling their kids and so does Kabir’s parents.

        A parent would always think of finding the right solution for their kid in a given situation and so did you!!


  8. Tapish Gupta says:

    That’s really a tough one to decide.
    Once during my early teen age, when I was with my parents, a lady beggar approached us for money. She didn’t look like she really needed to beg. My mother offered her to work at our home as a maid/helper on a paid basis so then she won’t need to beg and could earn respectably. That was a good option according to me, but the moment my mom finished, that lady started murmuring and ran as if we were going to kidnap her!!
    I was amazed that how they just need an easy income, without wanting to work!!

    1. I thought that too for the longest time. My grandma would do that a lot. Offer them jobs. Sometimes 1 or 2 came home too. But never stayed. In later tearwhen I met a few beggars and spoke to them at shelters. They run because of many factors. Sometimes cause they are trapped , sometimes cause of a drug habit, distrust of those oFfering help, fear of another kind of life…… But its frustrating to watch them run!

      1. Tapish Gupta says:

        Factors as you told give a different perspective to the situation, and yes they hold true in many cases.

  9. ZinalBhadra says:

    Always, almost always, i am same crossroads and cant make up my mind about that. Should we give money or rather give some food? Should we just pretend to be indifference? What about that little tug we feel? Ignore? If we do give money, are they going to stop begging? And just like you, i let THAT moment decide.

    1. ya, but don’t you miss having ready answers. perfect solutions that work each time…. no guilt! no confusion!

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