As it happens, there are a lot of poor people in India. (Such profound and cutting-edge reporting, I know. Where’s my blogging Pulitzer?)
There are quite a few rich people in India, too. As a tourist, I was certainly one of them, my wallet fat with Korean won transmuted into rupees. Of course, there are rich and poor people everywhere money exists, especially in my big fat American homeland (where the gap between the two is arguably much wider). The uniquely trippy thing about India is that everyone more or less inhabits the same space. In America, our poor are shunted off to homeless shelters or hobo camps, out of sight and out of mind. In India, all people: Bollywood stars, politicians, lepers and Dalit (formerly “Untouchables”), walk the same streets, if not necessarily the same reality.
If you haven’t read the excellent book The City and the City, I can’t recommend it enough (i.e. I won’t shut up about this book and all my friends are tired of hearing about it). The plot is a rather paint-by-numbers detective novel, but the setting is what makes it Hugo Award worthy. It takes place in two distinct cities and cultures which, through some vague and undefined mechanism, overlap each other physically. The denizens of both cities, over a long period of acculturation and policing, have been trained to “unsee” citizens and objects belonging to the other city. Like if East and West Berlin had been superimposed upon each other, rather than side by side. It’s a mind-bender of a novel, and had me obsessively wondering about the mechanics of “unseeing.”
“Unseeing” is a defense mechanism. If you don’t learn to do this effectively, according to most experienced travellers, then you declare yourself an easy mark. Look with purpose straight ahead of you, because eye contact potentially invites all sorts of unwanted things. That’s right, the men can bore holes into your face forever with their eyeballs, but return their stare and you might be a whore. Do not look or evince the slightest interest at a vendor touting their wares, unless you are actually interested in something and are prepared to haggle for it. Do not, under any circumstances, see the beggars.
I used to give spare change and dollars to panhandlers. I was aware that they might take that money and possibly spend it on drugs. There is always the chance that the money will go to where it is needed, I thought, and I opted to “gamble” on the betterment of humanity rather than, say, a Powerball ticket. I moved to Korea and encountered a man with amputated legs wrapped in rubber, crawling forward on a flat scooter like the ones in elementary school gym class. Using his head, he pushed a boombox blaring a sad old timey Korean song, and a box for donations. He looked abjectly pitiable. I gave him the equivalent of five dollars.
Then I noticed more and more of these “seal men”, most frequently in high pedestrian traffic areas of Seoul such as Myeongdong or Namdaemun. They all have the same set-up, as if a factory has churned them out: the scooter, the rubber leg pants, the sad music. (Much like the fictional Remade, from other China Mieville novels). I heard dark rumors that they were people who had owed huge debts to Korean mafia outfits, and upon failure of repayment, had had their legs forcibly amputated; they’d then been put to work begging to pay off the debts. All won collected went straight to the pockets of mobsters. I stopped giving money to these guys.
Before I went to India, people suggested that I bring along pens to give to child beggars, in lieu of money. The idea being that this would encourage the children to go to school. I had accumulated a great number of pens, so I stuffed them all in a pouch and stupidly put this pouch in a side pocket of my backpack; it fell out or was liberated by a baggage handler. I had nothing to give the ragamuffins of India, and a friend had warned that they would swarm me. Her most frightening experience involved a group of ten of them attacking her, chasing her down the street. They were elementary school age, but they had numbers. I remembered the child merchants in Sapa, who had tried to get me to buy bangles by throwing them at me, and I had thrown them back, which then turned into a sweet and funny kind of game. The street kids in India sounded way more hardcore, more world-weary.
Eli and I met up with some friends in the princely state of Rajasthan, and we were standing around gawping at the scenery like stereotypical tourists. To beggars and touts, we looked like walking bags of money. A woman spawned out of thin air, shoving her filthy child in front of us. “Money, money. My girl she must eat,” she pleaded, while the little girl munched on some bread.
I stared straight ahead, admiring the crenellations on the gate walls to the Pink City. Eli discreetly moved away. Bob talked loudly with our rickshaw driver. The woman laser-focused on Sara, correctly assessing that she out of all of us had the weakest resistance to impoverished children. We walked away and the woman followed, dragging the little dirty girl behind her, talking all the while to Sara. For such situations, Sara and Bob had brought some candy from New Zealand. Sara gave some of these candies to the woman, and the woman blinked and threw them on the ground, looking angry. Eventually, she gave up on us – there were plenty of other walking moneybags to accost.
Anyway, so I snapped a photo of the girl. I didn’t give her anything, nor did I give anything to her mother. This was relatively early in our trip; afterwards I shied away from taking photographs of people, because a tip is expected in return, and I almost never had any small bills. (Travel tip: no one ever wants to give you change in India, and everyone expects tips for the littlest thing, so hang onto your 5s and 10s for dear life. Once I yelled at a pre-paid taxi stand cashier over 20 rupees, which is the equivalent of 37 cents – not my finest hour. But hey, I got it back.) I still feel a twinge of guilt for not giving her compensation in any format whatsoever, for what I (humbly) think is a pretty amazing photograph.
Child begging is so very complicated. The money will always go to an adult, who pockets all of it and is thus incentivized to keep the child out of school and on the streets. Sometimes, the adult isn’t even the child’s parent;
young children are kidnapped and brought far away from their homes by strangers who force them into begging, labor or even prostitution. Many are tortured or mutilated for the purpose of eliciting maximum sympathy from potential givers, a la Slumdog Millionaire. My friend Prabaker almost fell victim to such child-snatchers when he was a little boy, separated from his uncle at a carnival. You want to help these kids, because some of them are so very young. But helping looks a lot like hurting, and vice versa.
Merchant children seem better off; oftentimes they are lively, quick-witted and funny. The Sapa trinket kids were were adorable. Even so, buying from them is tantamount to paying them to stay out of school. Notable quote from Adventurous Kate:
“And when a tiny Cambodian girl with torn clothing and dirt on her face tries to get you to buy postcards at Angkor Wat, resist the temptation to buy everything she has on her. Her parents know that dressing her that way sells more postcards.”
Better to donate the currency you would have given to a known and reputable charity. Great. So what, then, do you do with the child immediately in front of you? You steel your heart and then your face, and say “no” – actually, you don’t say anything at all. You walk away. You don’t see.
Eventually – actually, in no time at all, in my case – you get pretty good at “unseeing,” and simply sidestep huge swaths of dead pixels in your environment without even thinking about it, as if you have done this your whole life. (You have). Occasionally, when something breaches this wall you have built, you respond with a degree of vehemence and loathing totally disproportionate to the initial provocation.
In the Sudder Street backpacker district of Kolkata, a woman patrols the busiest intersection, looking for marks. She’s in her late fifties or early sixties, maybe, with long streaked gray hair and a dusty red sari. She is thin and brown and bone-worn. She carries a baby on her hip; this baby is likely her grandchild, or possibly stolen from somewhere.
“Sister, sister,” she says, zeroing in on me rather than Eli, appealing to my womanhood. I ignore her, but she yanks at my sleeve. “My baby needs milk, please can you give something. My baby needs milk, please can you give something.” She repeats this over and over, like a broken Teddy Ruxpin. I turn my back, making sure my purse is in front of me. She tries for Eli, who responds: “maybe later,” and I hiss at him: “what are you doing? She’ll never leave us alone,” and so it goes. We’re stuck at an outdoor phone booth, waiting to contact our friends, and meanwhile this fucking woman won’t stop with her(?) baby needing milk, and she does her spiel for almost the entire twenty to thirty minutes it takes us to reach our friends. All the while, she stares hard at me. “You’re not my sister. Go away!” I snap at her, and finally she recedes into the Sudder Street traffic.
I find myself despising this woman. Really, truly loathing her. I can’t shake her even when she goes. A dark, angry cloud fogs my brain; it tinges my interactions with Eli and everyone else I meet that day. Once upon a time, I thought of myself as a noble idealist whose sympathy lay with the poor and dispossessed, against the elite. This image evaporates in the face of this woman, whose interjection into my life forces me to acknowledge who I am: the type of person who yells at street beggars. Let’s say this woman really is making a living off of scamming tourists. What does that say about her life? It says she’s a jerk, but a jerk that has to resort to mooching what little she can, to maintain such a lousy existence. If she had another option, she’d surely be doing that.
Meanwhile, I’m a tourist bedecked in a T-shirt, harem pants and a DSLR around my neck. I have more money in my pocket, and more amazing life experiences than she could ever dream of having. I have privilege by sheer virtue of where I happened to be born. (And that is some luck, there, as my parents are immigrants). What do I do with all this privilege? I use it to fly around the world, take pretty pictures, drink and stuff my face with food I don’t even need, and expend energy hating others with absolutely nothing.
That is not to say that I regret not giving this woman any money. I definitely stand by the advice given by Adventurous Kate, and with other activists for social change whom I’ve encountered on my travels, that giving to beggars merely serves to reinforce an otherwise unsustainable system.
I do regret the totally uncalled for rage, and the impulse that led me to yell at her. Scammy jerk or no, she’s still a human being. Not quite so sure about myself.