Thursday, March 23, 2006

Pity the beggars?

It’s been ages. To be able to write, the mind needs to be able to think. Somehow I was not thinking much about a lot about my life the past few days. The routine life had taken its toll. Sometimes things need to be shaken up.

I am now in Vizag doing nothing. I needed this cooling off after the hectic Mumbai life badly. As always, this time too, I was traveling home by train. Now sleeper class being my preferred class for travel, because it is airy & open and because it is very cheap. It is also always filled to the brim with many experiences - different kinds of people either begging or selling you something.

The journey started off with hijras. In fact, throughout the journey, as many as 8 hijra parties "raided" our compartment. They certainly have grown in number. But I get the feeling that they have lost their old aggression and style. Where is the highly expressive, no holds barred overly feminine nature? Where are the loud claps that sent chills down young boy's spines? Where is the stubborn nature of not accepting anything less than 10 Rs? Now they seem to be satisfied even with 1 Re. They seem to have diminished in their character and style and have dropped to the level of ordinary beggars.

Anyway, when it comes to beggars, there are a very few we can characterize as ordinary. To be able to get money from others, almost every beggar will have some differentiator. For example take the lame beggars of different kind. On this trip I saw some walk with the help of either prosthetic legs or other apparatus. I saw some who would simply crawl who had their legs bent behind their backs. These were polio affected and locking their lifeless legs behind the backs probably made more sense than having them loosely hanging around. I missed the skateboarding lame beggars, the ones who don’t crawl but sit on a locally made skateboards made of plywood and small wheels to move around using the hands.

The next most popular category of disabled beggars ought to be the blind beggars. Again they can be sub classified as plain begging beggars or singing ones. Somehow the concept of singing is very popular in blind beggars. In addition it also adds the entertainment factor giving a boost to the beggar's earnings.

Young boys and girls too use entertainment (singing/dancing) to earn money. Special mention is needed for the rocking sisters. No they were not into rock. They just use these two flat rocks to add rhythm to their singing and dancing on popular bollywood fare. I'm sure almost anyone who has traveled in a train in India knows how two rocks are expertly used to create the crackling sound.

Among people who do something more than just beg, we should not leave behind the sweepers. The first category brings a proper broom along. Members of the second category simply remove their shirts and sweep with them maybe to add to the pity factor. No offense meant. At least they clean the place up before begging for money. When they are done, they simply dust the dirt off and wear it back.

Another very unique form of begging I've seen is the pamphlet alms seeker. A middle-aged woman quietly distributes pamphlets in the compartment. The pamphlet would typically contain some sad story of how a farmer has lost everything, committed suicide and has left behind children who need to be taken care of. When she was done distributing the pamphlets, she would come back to collect the pamphlets and money.

Somehow I don’t pity any beggar. When I see someone whose profession itself is begging, who does this everyday, I am curious and try to find out how they do what they do. Consider this incident I witnessed on the platform of Lonavla station. Two crawling polio affected beggars were talking to each other, a man and a woman. The man had just alighted our train. The woman was looking to get inside our train to start her tour of begging. He advised her not to board this one and shared the dismal experience of his tour of the train. He was of the opinion that she would be better off touring the Kanyakumari Express scheduled to arrive next. Now when I witness such a conversation, I see two professionals earning their living through begging sharing potential opportunities. I don’t see helpless people who have no control on their life. This makes me regard them as equals, maybe not in monetary terms, but just in their competence in what they do - begging. Pity doesn't quite fit in this arrangement.