October 02, 2004

Beggars In India

My friend, Jason, and I had just returned from a three day camel journey into the Indian Thar Desert. Both of us had become sickened with influenza, and were suffering discomfort and fatigue trying to recover. In the Rajasthan city of Jodhpur, we were ready to head east to Jaipur by train. Unfortunately, our train was delayed for 12 hours. This meant that we had to spend a chilly December night sleeping at the station with everyone else.

The next morning, I was particularly cranky due to my illness. Usually, I consider myself tolerant, good spirited and polite to beggars and other individuals who try to procure money from me. However, my attitude that morning was in no mood for the constant badgering. One shoeshine boy in particular, would just not take no for an answer. After trying to polish my suede and canvas hiking boots, I just had enough, and in the end, quite out of character, I told him to "Fuck off!" It was not my proudest moment.

In the meantime, a Sikh was watching what was happening. He walked over, pulled out one Rupee from a pouch, handed it to the child, who then immediately scampered off. My friend thanked him, but I will never forget the look of disgust the Sikh gentleman gave us. To have peace of mind, all that was required was that I give one Rupee to the shoeshine boy. The indignation that I gave the boy was entirely unnecessary, unsympathetic and unfair. It was such a valuable lesson.

On a particularly frosty night in Agra, after a wonderful day at the Taj Mahal, we waited for the train that would take us to Delhi. As my friend was chatting with an Indian couple, a begging child dragged himself over towards me. I was instantly taken by his beautiful, smiling face, but was shocked by the twisted, broken shape that supported it. His legs were lame and turned up in an unnatural manner, and he was only able to move about by walking on his arms.

I handed him some coins and began talking to him. He told me that he was 10 years old, and had been involved in a train accident when he was very young. He lifted his shirt, which revealed a shocking patchwork of hideous scars. He was clearly lucky to have survived.

As we continued to chat, I decided to give him a woollen hat, a new t-shirt I had, and some socks for him to put on his hands. He showed enormous appreciation, and I wish that I could have done far more for him. He really was a lovely boy, whose life should have been so different.

When we meet such people on our travels, it is very easy to dismiss them into the background, or to dehumanise them as some "other". We are taught that it is not good to give money to beggars, because this encourages the growth of such social habits. However, there has to be balance. Of course, we cannot as individuals change the unfairness in the world, but a small offering of one Rupee can make a difference to someone.

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