Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Alms With A Difference

There was always a high flow of foot traffic on that bridge in Mumbai for it was the link from the suburb of East to West Dadar. 

Lost in thought, Vaishali almost passed him without a glance. She was thinking of Sandeep. Something had gone out of their relationship. On the one hand, it was a blow to her ego but on the other, she couldn't help but acknowledge the guilty sense of relief and freedom that had begun suffusing her heart.

I'll survive, she thought, knowing she shouldn't feel so ridiculously happy. If only I didn't have to face those pitying looks from the others. I know, she thought, I won't tell them. Not yet. Or perhaps... Vaishali jumped, coming back to the present with a fright.

Was that a creepy crawly that had brushed against her leg? A cockroach? She shuddered. She hated cockroaches. With a half strangled sound she bent down to flick wildly at her leg. She stopped herself just in time as she saw a tiny hand, the tiniest she'd ever seen, withdraw in fright. It belonged to a child beggar and he'd barely brushed it against her leg to catch her attention.

For a second, reacting to the fright he'd given her she had this urge to yell at the little boy. Then, sanity restored, she looked at him again. He was a boy of about four. Exhaling on a shaky breath she would’ve continued on her way - such things happened on Mumbai roads all the time - but he had such a quality of vulnerability that without realising what she was doing, she stopped.
 She looked at the child beggar, not knowing what to do. 

This was a gut reaction. It wasn't the face she'd trained herself to present to beggars. However persistently they invaded her space, however much they touched her with their dirty, grubby hands she kept walking, never looking at them, her face carefully blank, her pace neither quickening nor slowing. After about five minutes of this - their insistent touching as they tried to force her to look at them, and her determination not to, they ran off to harass another, more likely victim. They never realised how close she came to caving in.

In the eighties she used to give money to the few beggars on Bombay roads. But, almost overnight, their numbers had increased. Begging had become a whole new industry - that of gangs organising poor and deprived kids into a beggar's brigade. There were too many and they had started using tactics of harassment to get her to cough up. She would recoil wherever she felt a beggars’ army of persistent hands on her person but she’d decided she was better off holding on grimly to her lost-in-thought demeanour and measured walk.

Today was different. After that one touch, the little child did not touch her again. He sat there, unmoving, except for his huge eyes, not beseeching - the look these beggars normally assumed - but slightly fearful, slightly curious and very hopeful - a look that somehow pulled at her heartstrings. As she went for her purse, she realised there was probably a gang of other kids watching out for suckers just like her. They had a code - they wouldn't approach someone they instinctively knew was almost ready to part with their cash. 

Vaishali knew so many reasons why she ought not to shell out to this beautiful, dirt streaked baby and yet, she wanted to help. She wanted to wipe the sadness and fear off the little upturned face, the obvious hunger. He still hadn't acquired the streetwise cunning she knew would mar his face before long - a beseeching face for people like her and a knowing, sideways glance for his beggar friends.

She was aware the other pedestrians had started noticing her.  Some looked at her with interest but most had cynicism writ large on their faces. What a foolish young woman, those faces seemed to say. Perhaps she thinks she can change the world. 

She suddenly knew what she must do. She clamped shut her bag and marched across to one of the street vendors standing not too far away. She bought a
 batata wada. She cautioned the vendor not to put any chutney in the bread. After her tiff with Sandeep, the two hadn't ended up at the canteen for a coffee and she luckily had some pocket money to spare. She picked out the visible chillies from the vada with her fingers, went back to the child and handed it to him. He accepted it with excited eyes and a beaming smile. She stood there watching over him fiercely while he ate – quick, tiny little bites. Other hungry beggars didn't dare approach the child to snatch away its unexpected treat. Surprisingly, none came to bother her either. Perhaps, even they understood how little this child was.

Vaishali reached home on a high. She was happier than she'd been in a long time. Not only was she rid of Sandeep, she had watched a young child finish half a
 vada and put away the other half for later. For the first time in a long while, he would've been too full to finish what was on his plate.

Jeevan, for that was the young child's name, felt full and happy. He slept. Waking up at 6 pm, he finished the other half
 vada. He knew his minder would come around dusk to take him away and he didn't want to have to share even a crumb with anyone. So that's how batata vadas tasted. He had always smelt them but this was the first time he'd had one. It was delicious. His minders only gave him watery daal. He normally went to bed hungry. But not tonight. In fact, he couldn't have eaten a morsel of that daal, so full was he.

The young lady came every day after that. She was careful never to give him money but always brought him a slice of bread or roti with a dry
 sabzi in it. It was packed in newspaper. It was half her lunch. She liked to think he looked forward to their little tryst as much as she did. Within a couple of days she thought she saw a change in him. His pallid face now looked like it had a bit of colour and his eyes were definitely brighter. Whenever he saw her he now had the strength to get up in anticipation and pleasure. They exchanged a smile. Then, with tenderness in her eyes she gave him the packet she'd lovingly prepared for him. It was never much but always enough. He sat down with it excitedly and as he made to open it eagerly, she waited patiently. After he finished she bent down, patted his head and went on her way. She knew she wanted to do much more for this child but she didn't know what else she could do or who she could approach to ask. Her wish remained locked away in her heart.

Over the weekend, with a change in her normal routine, Vaishali forgot the child. She didn't remember the little boy until the weekend was gone. Her mind on her best friend, she started out for college on Monday. I can't keep my break with Sandeep a secret much longer, she thought. I'll have to tell. 
Microsoft free clipart

As she reached the bridge she knew she'd forgotten something. With a sinking heart she remembered what it was. She hurried back home, picked a sheet of newspaper and hurried out again. Out of sight of her house but still within the boundaries of her housing colony, she opened her lunch box with fingers that shook and rolled some of the sabzi into one roti for the little child. Her heart hammering, she wondered how she could have forgotten the boy. She tried to imagine his reaction. He would've felt so let down. Perhaps, she thought without hope, he didn't beg over the weekend. Thoughts of Sandeep had all but flown. Her breath escaping on a sob she thought, to have given someone so young, hope, and then to let him down so badly. 

She hurried back to the bridge. With an anxious heart she rushed to the spot where he normally sat. He wasn't there. 

She traced her steps back. He wasn't there. 

He is so tiny he's easy to miss, she thought, not wanting to give up hope. She crossed the bridge again. She crossed the road and went up and down on the other side. He wasn't there. 


She reached her college on feet that felt like lead. Her friend, who'd heard Sandeep talk about his breaking up with Vaishali, took one look at her pain ravaged face and knew with a sinking heart it was all true.

The child sat on the new road his minder told him was much better than the old bridge. His stomach hurt with hunger. He knew he would get his daal only if he earned his keep. With desperate and beseeching eyes he touched the feet of a passerby. The woman expertly twisted her legs to avoid his grubby little fingers and having succeeded, triumphantly walked on.

Many years later, with blogging all but the latest rage, Vaishali blogged her story. Her hope was that people would stop giving money to beggars. It is so easy to give a coin and feel good about ourselves. It is harder to prepare a newspaper pooda of something to eat and give that instead. Who knows, if the idea goes viral, it might bust the Dickensian gangs.

-x-x-x-x-x-



I would like to acknowledge and thank a blogger on Indiblogger whose post about a child beggar, entered for the Stayfree, Time To Change competition., triggered the idea for this story. I doubt if I can find his post again with 300 plus posts, including this one, entered for the competition. I found his story moving and disturbing. It was about wading through the dirty waters flooding Kurla and having a tiny little 3 year old chase after him with a newborn babe in her arms, begging for a coin.


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42 comments:

  1. Touching story indeed. I feel guilty about how little time we have for doing any real good and how we avoid the gazes of the beseeching beggars. I remember reading about a guy who used to carry a string of chappals with him to give out to the needy who needed them. Its not money they require, but a kind word here and there and food to keep them alive!

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  2. Thanks Richa. I guess it isn't easy to think of the beggar we might meet when we're running late for an appointment. But I'm hoping we resist giving coins and give something that isn't of any use to the Dickensian characters who organise these kids into a begging industry.

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    1. String of chappals, eh? What a nice idea!

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  3. Don't remember having been moved by a story so much in the recent past! And, having just posted my maiden attempt at fiction, I have an even higher appreciation of how difficult it is to write a story that vividly communicates the emotions you sought to communicate. Kudos to you.

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  4. Thanks for the lovely compliment, CS. Read your story and enjoyed it. Did he really deserve her in any form?

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  5. Thanks for sharing this poignant story. Most of the time, I am wary of these beggars.

    http://rachnaparmar.com

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    1. I know, Rachna. Who isn't? They've mastered techniques like - let us touch and harass them so much they'll quickly pay up if only to get rid of us. But behind all that is a brain and behind that street smart and street hardened heart there must be hope that perhaps one day, they'll get a job just like that smart couple who whizzed past in the flash car.

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  6. I appreciate your effort in writing this post. There are many beggar rackets in India which are growing bigger with every passing day. Hope your post spreads awareness among readers.

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  7. I agree with Rachna!It is so difficult to make out if it is a part of organised begging or an individual in real need! Very well written. All the best for the competition!

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  8. Thanks Rahul. I know it is difficult to make out. Whether they belong to a gang of exploiters or are part of a needy family, if we take the trouble to give them a sabzi and a roti, it might fill their tums. But what use is it to a gang leader who wants money?

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  9. I really liked the narrative style and it is a very creative solution instead of some cliched goody goody stuff. Yeah, giving food seems like a better idea than giving money and practical too.

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  10. That was a very beautiful story, which could so well be true. I had done a story on organised begging in Mumbai. It is chilling to the bones. And the sad part is, except for the very small ones, the older ones don't accept food in lieu of money. Both maybe, but not just food. If only they could be rescued....

    All the best for the contest, Kayem. Two entries and both so different :)

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    1. I'll read your story today, zephyr. I am sure it will be well researched. Hopefully, if they don't accept food, we take it back home but don't give them money.

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    2. The post you read is not the one i meant. That had come out in '88 in Sunday FPJ (Alms and the Man) and was specific to begging in Mumbai. It is not available online, And yes, I had tramped the streets and spoke to many beggars both old and young and was chased and threatened :)

      This one was about abuse of children, not just sexual but also for other reasons. I am glad you liked it.

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  11. Most of the time (especially in the cities) its organised gang and the more we give, the more the gangs "recruit"

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    1. That's true, Haddock and they recruit for money.(That's twice whilst replying to a comment on this post that I've remembered the lines of that song, "I wanch monay" :)

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  12. Whether true story or not, the idea is a good one. It touches a chord.

    In a way, it gives us a satisfaction of giving something to those hungry , and cheat those gangs.May be, I will carry lots of chocolates , and give it those kids. There is no dearth of them!

    A great post.

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  13. Thanks VV. Glad you liked it. Chocolates eh? What a treat. (Hope you unwrap them so they'll have no re-sale value.)

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  14. That was a very emotional post.I could recollect a similar experience ..during my junior college days..I had once met this child ,may be about ten years old..handicapped..he used to beg outside the railway station.we used to buy him a vada pav or a bhel puri or some snack every other day..but this habit was lost with time,,n when I recently visited college I remembered the child, though he wasn't present there..
    I could actually get back to those days while reading your post ,,and Its his face in my mind while reading your story

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  15. I can see it touched you emotionally because of the little handicapped boy. I guess this isn't uncommon in India. When we see someone so deprived, being human we do something. But being human and having so many problems of our own, the act of kindness is impulsive and random. I think we need to make an organised, united and regular effort - a realistic 1 or 2 hours a week? - for any cause beyond ourselves.

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  16. wow! what a narration.. Gave me goosebumps..All the best for the contest. You deserve it.

    Glad to have found you at Indiblogger. Your newest follower and a regular visitor now.
    cheers
    Kajal

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  17. Touching story, KayEm. Great arration of a woman's sudden urge for generosity in a moment of vulnerability.

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  18. Thanks very much, Dark Knight.

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  19. Very beautifully and poignantly written.You are an author for sure.:-D

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  20. What a lovely story with a deep, underlying message. Absolutely loved it.

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  21. Thank you, Purba. What a lovely compliment.

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  22. Hey KayEm,
    Very well written story. And i so agree with the message. When I was in Mumbai, I totally was against giving money to the beggars. I wish you luck for the contest and hope more and more people get the message.

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    1. Thanks a lot, Ekta. Hope so too.

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  23. Sometimes we big people loose the perspective along the way... I want to share an experience with you... other day me, my husband and my 4yr old had gone out for ice cream... there was a small boy selling ballons, who conveyed to me and my child that he was hungry.... so I went out of the ice creanm parlour and bought a ballon from him.... my 4 yr year old commented on it that the dada was hungry and was not selling ballons, so I went ahead and purhased an ice-cream for the boy, the gratitude in the eyes was more satisfying the ice-cream I had... and then I realised, that the guy would not get the money he earns, but ice-cream will satisfy a little hunger.... my 4 yr old helped to see the things clearly...

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  24. I love kids. They never lose touch with humanity. I can imagine the deep satisfaction you must've felt. Thanks for the lovely story, Smita

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  25. and who will not be moved by this story? touchingly felt and shared with the readers

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  26. that was a powerful, touching story :) such an effective way to convey your ideas!! :)
    However, this particular "giving or not giving alms" issue is again very complicated one, I have seen people giving very powerful arguments supporting both sides. Those who are in favour of giving alms to those street beggars argues something like this-' "What matters is you are helping, if I can't help at grasroot level (by providing jobs etc.), then even those kind of small monetary help is fine, it helps the child (beggar). Even if let's assume, the money is going to the mafias handling them, then too, at least the child is going to get food if he gets enough money by evening."
    Personally though, I never give a single pie to the beggars, this is also because I don't earn right now, so I take extreme precaustion while giving money in charity/donation. I think we should never give any monetary help to those beggars who are physically fit, physically crippled beggars' cases can be sometimes considered. Its a highly subjective issue.

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  27. Thanks for your thoughts and welcome to the blog YR.

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  28. Very touching and with a good solution. Rather than pay money we can feed them.

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    1. Thanks bma, for both, stopping by and your comment.

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  29. Begging is an industry in which there are godfathers who stay behind and do not beg and enjoy the earnings of the child labor.

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  30. Such a sad state of affairs for our children, isn't it Pradeep? Thanks for your comment and welcome to the blog.

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