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"Go and tell your people about it"

INDIA | Tuesday, 25 March 2008 | Views [1166] | Comments [2]

Amritsar, early morning, on our way to the golden temple

Amritsar, early morning, on our way to the golden temple

‘Do not give beggar’s money. You are their biggest problem.’

As soon as I saw the sign, I walked right into the shop. The man behind the desk looked tough. He was a Sikh. (tell tale signs of turban, silver bracelet, beard)

With my most deferential manner,  I said ‘Hi. I saw the sign up on the window. About the beggars. Can you tell me your opinion about giving money to the children?’

He was staring at me with a hint of a scowl. ‘Its you people who create this problem. The children don’t learn how to make a living any other way, because you people keep giving them money. The government has places these people can go to. They have enough food. They have somewhere to sleep, but they don’t go there because they get money from you. Don’t give them money. Go back and tell your people about it. Don’t give them anything. Go and tell your people not to give to the beggars.’ 

He was obviously sick of the sight of interfering westerners, coming for a couple of weeks holiday and continuing to aid the population and upkeep of the beggar community.

He looked back down at his papers. The conversation was over. I bowed my head and said thank you, that I will tell people. He didn’t actually smile, but the tension across his eyebrows let up a little.

This was in Delhi. It was the first few days of our 6 weeks in India. I’d read about the beggars and the recommended advice from seasoned India travelers.  But facing the reality. I really needed to hear, from a local, from someone who obviously cared, what they thought about the westerners imput.

Of course, there are beggars in all of the major tourist destinations. As we moved off the beaten track the children running to greet us were just saying hello. They didn’t want anything. Just to talk to us, to look at us, to smile. But it didn’t happen often.

There are a few scenes that stand out more than the others.

A child of 4 holding a baby on the street. He was sitting down, the baby quiet on his lap. The baby had ‘red’ bandages wrapped across its head. My fist reaction was shock, nausea, and people were stepping over them. A beautiful Indian woman stepped over the children, turned back at me and smiled with a hint of mischief.. The moment was seeped in paradox. Her beauty, the colour of her sari, the fall of her long hair, the beggar children she was stepping over, the ‘red’ of the bandage. The unusual stillness of the children. 

A little girl of 5 came up to us, particularly heart wrenching. Her expression of agony, her imploring eyes, her out reaching hands. Jett (our 8 year old) looked at me. I could see he was thinking the same as me ‘ahh, but this one, she REALLY means it. Not like the other ones. This one is really a beggar who needs help. Just give her a little something. It can’t hurt.’  I hardened myself. Kept the Sikh’s words in my head. I repeated to myself that they had somewhere else to go. If we keep giving them money, then they will never learn to be anything else…  I firmly walked on. 

A little further away, I couldn’t resist turning back to take a last look at her.  She was smiling at her mother. Her mother was laughing and the little girl was skipping beside her. The skipping remains firmly embedded in my mind. The lightness. It was all a game. The transformation stunned me.

I grabbed Jett, turned him around, and said ‘Look Jett, she’s happy. She’s not really starving. Its just her job. Its her job to beg. Its how she gets money. Now if we give her money, then she will keep doing this her whole life. We have to say no. Do you see?’  He was hurt by the little girl, as much as I. Her acting was superior than anything I had seen.  But then we had to explain that we can't 'dislike' them or judge them. They just don't know any thing else. And as long as people like us keep feeding their lifestyle, then they are never going to be in a position to change.

Two of the most beautiful smiling boys running beside Jett with grubby white garbage bags. They were filthy. Their clothes were scraps. The hands encrusted with dirt. Their faces bright and their smiles beautiful. They began their walk with us begging, but after some moments began to smile and laugh a little about our son. Jett walks very upright. He’s rather proper and feels his importance in the world. He wasn’t sure about the boys. They were officially labeled ‘beggars’, so we had been ignoring them (if you don’t they just stick to you), but their faces were so friendly. And their attitude was playful. Jett wasn’t sure how to behave. He liked them. He wanted to talk to them, but our languages were not matching. Finally we walked to our modest hotel, and the boys stood outside and smiled and waved at us. We went inside.  I cried. But it doesn’t help does it?

Tags: beggars, children, india, scams




Ah, the age old problem. I have always had a policy of never giving money to the children, it's quite right, however hard. Over the years we have developed other strategies to cope, perhaps the best of which, at least in many parts, is to stop for a while and ask them their names, about their families, their schools, their friends. You get the idea. It is surprising easy to divert the attention of a 5 year old ... at least until some other potential target wanders past and then they are off again!

  simon_monk Mar 26, 2008 6:05 AM


Thanks Simon.
It helps to hear other people's experiences.
One day, on a train station, I was teaching Jett while waiting for a train.. Two little girls approached u asking for money. Instead I tried to join them in what I was doing with Jett. They smiled and looked a bit confused, but the moment was full of honest communication between people. Their mother saw that they weren't earning anything and pushed them along. You can only hope that the more positive experiences the children have will help, in some way, in their future.

  allwelcome Mar 26, 2008 12:26 PM

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