by Fred Glick

They are everywhere in India.  More reliable than the electricity, moreconsistent than the heat, more varied than you might think.

Your initial reaction is to feel singled out.  As a foreigner.  You don't want to be taken for a chump, so you chase them away.  But after a bit, and a bit of observation, you discover that they aren't just asking you, or tourists, or even just those who look better off.  They are asking of the few equal opportunities in India.  Anyone can be asked for an extra rupee.

I once watched a pair of beggars working their way through a slum. One was blind, the other crippled in the extreme way Indian beggars often are: this one had neither arms, nor legs. They worked their way through the mud lanes, the blind one chanting, as the cripple rolled himself along the ground.  The beggars help to remind everyone, even the poorest, that no matter how bad things seem, they could always be worse. 

You are confronted with them all the time.  On the street as you walk, in the market as you shop, in traffic as you wait for the light to change.  So what do you do? 

You rationalise.  Everyone does, there's no other way to survive India with your conscience, and sanity, intact. 

"Most of them will just spend the money on booze."

"It's an organised racket.  Some Fagin will just take most of it."

"The money would be put to much better use if I give it to a charity doing work for these people."

"There is no possible way I could give something to every beggar who approaches."

All of these probably contain some truth, but the fact is that you are confronted with four or five beggars every morning on your way to work, four or five different ones on your way home, and some of them really are heart-wrenching. 

Some people decide not to give and I've never seen anyone who always gave something.  The last quote is probably true.  There are just too many of them.  Like vultures on a corpse, like pigeons gathering 'round the bird lady, like yuppies at the latest hot restaurant, when one scores, others
seem to appear out of nowhere.  An overly generous foreigner in central Delhi would soon be the centre of a mob, and quite possibly even a riot.

Most people seem to give something occasionally.  Some may be motivated out of charity, some out of guilt, some may be simply trying to get rid of the filthy child pulling at their sleeve.  How do you decide to whom to give and when? 

How do you decide who is worthy of your charity? 

One leper is at the same corner every morning, a small tin pail hooked over the wrist of his finger-less hand.  Another girl is at another corner in the afternoon.  She has a small, very dirty baby with her and is pregnant with another.  She looks fifteen, but it could just be her stunted growth. When you do your grocery shopping you have to step over a man whose limbs have been shrivelled by polio. 

My personal strategy has been to give to the ones I "know". In a series of cinematic coincidences they pop-up regularly, and not just at their regular corners

The leper at the corner. It turns out that he lives in a small slum, inhabited mostly by lepers, across the street from my office.  Sometimes I see him in the evenings as I head home.  When I do, he usually finds me rickshaw and tells the driver not to try to take advantage of me.  I never give him anything when I see him in these circumstances and he never asks. Begging is a job in India, and he seems happy to leave his work at the office.  Once, he even introduced me to his wife and showed me their
spotless brick-walled shack.  It seemed to me that he was pleased to be showing me that there is more to his life than a begging bowl.

The girl with the baby.  Her name is Seema, the baby's, Sita.  I see them at corners all over the city.  In a city this size with some 13 million people you wouldn't think such coincidences would be all that common, but somehow they are and every time we cross paths Seema comes over to chat. Even the baby recognises me now.  My Hindi is limited, and Seema's English non-existent, so we'd have a hard time finding more to say to one another if, say, the light didn't change.  But it always does. When I have some change, I give it to her.  When I don't, it's no big deal.  Somehow our relationship has changed.  Sort of like when you become a regular at a local restaurant.  You're still a patron, but everyone's on a first name basis now and even if you come in for just a cold drink the waiters still
seem happy to see you.

There's a new group of pavement dwellers living on the median near the market.  Pavement dwellers are too poor to afford even a shack in one of Delhi's 1500 slums.  Often they're newly arrived from 'the village' and I cannot even begin to imagine the conditions there if living on a five-foot wide strip of pavement in the middle of a main Delhi thoroughfare is preferable.

I go past them now every morning, and as I sit at the corner in a three-wheeled autorickshaw, waiting for the light to change I'm sometimes, when that corner's regulars are between shifts, approached by one or another of the new arrivals.

One afternoon a woman approaches me carrying a baby so small, so undernourished that it seems obvious that it will die.  I've seen other children like this and usually they come with women from "the village". How they've survived this long mystifies the doctors I work with.  A two year old child that weighs five pounds, less than most of us weighed at birth.

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I give the mother some money, but with misgivings.  Will it go to buying food?  And if it does buy food, will it go towards the nutritious food the child, and mother, need? 

So with the best of intentions, when I do my shopping that evening I buy an extra bag of beans, just the kind of protein the child needs, and that is probably out of their price range. 

I put this bag of beans in my satchel, but I don't see the mother and her baby there the next day.  Nor the next, nor the next.  Still, I take these beans with me every day to work until, after a week, it becomes obvious that she was an aberration, working that one corner, that one day only.

But I'm still carrying a bag of beans with me.  It doesn't seem right that I should take them home and eat them myself.  They are charity, and keeping them would be like reaching back into a beggar's bowl to retrieve the five that you thought was a one. 

So I carry this bag of beans with me, everyday to work and everywhere I go, trying to find someone who seems to really need them.

How do you determine who is worthy of your charity?

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