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?