I give money to beggars. Not to the overly
aggressive ones or the well fed ones in rich cities, but only to the desparate,
dirty ones in out of the way foreign places. Beggars who passively hold
out their hands and are grateful when you give anything at all.
My perfect beggars are the ones ignored by other givers. The
little old lady sitting in the corner can suck my wallet
dry faster than a crowd of young men. Those guys
usually leave empty handed,
cursing me, because I only want to give to beggars
who make me feel generous and not threatened.
Part of why I give is so I can think that I'm making a difference. Also
because I want to expunge the guilty feeling that I get when I realize
that the things in my life that bother me (like trying to lose weight,
or not receiving a hotel wake up call, or getting a scratchy phone service
when calling back home) are so trivial when I compare them to the problems
that somebody in rags, sitting on the side of the road, brushing the
flies off the open sores on their legs, is facing. So I give, and the
guilt is expunged, and I feel better.
Well, that's the goal, but many times somebody with me starts telling
a story of a beggar they heard about who refused to
work when asked, or reminding me of a beggar who picked
up his rags and drove away in his Mercedes (Irina and
I saw that at the Notre Dame in France),
or one whose cell phone rang while sitting there and
had to sheepishly smile and answer it (we saw
that in Copenhagen), or one they saw buying beer with
the money they gave. And they start telling me reasons
why they don't give money. Then
all my good feelings evaporate, and I feel like I've
been taken advantage of. When I'm travelling with people
like this, I am surreptitious in
my giving. I fold the note so nobody knows how big
it is. I try to give it when nobody is looking. And
I lie about how much I give. I don't want
to make others feel guilty that I gave when they didn't.
India's full of my kind of perfect beggars. We found many of them on
our trip from Hyderabad to Sri Sailam last Saturday. Sri Sailam is 5
hours northwest of Hyderabad, and Alok, Kasi, Amit, Arunabh, and Swarup
brought me there to visit a temple of Lord Shiva (it contains one of
11 Shivlings - likenesses of Lord Shiva which miraculously and spontaneously
sprang from the earth). Many Hindu pilgrims travel there, shave their
heads, and pray and look upon the Shivling. The lines for these pilgrims
are very long - they wait many hours in the heat.
At one point on the drive to Sri Sailam, we stopped at a toll crossing
(a guy with a stick across the road). When our driver Prashanth went
over to pay him, a trio of beggars came to the car. One lady was shaking
like she had a bad case of Parkinson's disease. They put their heads
up to the car window and peered in at us, making hand to mouth motions.
By this point in the trip, my team was actively engaged in helping me
to identify the perfect beggars and weeding out the fakes. They immediately
went to work. Amit thought the shakes were fakes, but Swarup confirmed
their authenticity. Alok saw that the guy with the crutch was really
limping, and Kasi agreed. So we unrolled the windows and passed out the
notes, and left them happy and me feeling good.
After visiting the temple (Swarup paid extra so we could save eight
hours and cut to the front of the line), we stopped for some lime water,
and I was surrounded by a group of Yogis dressed in bright orange robes.
These are holy men of the Brahman caste, and they wander around town,
accepting food and money in exchange for blessings and fortunes. I thought
they just wanted money, and since they didn't look that hungry, I ignored
them. Then Arunabh explained to me that the Hindu tradition was to support
these guys, but that they were only allowed to take what they could eat
at that moment.
There were 15 Yogis, and I pulled out three 20 Rupee notes. I offered
them all to one Yogi, and pointed in a circle, gesturing that they had
to share. They nodded enthusiastically, and I wanted to make sure, so
I shook my finger at them, giving a stern look, and they all bowed their
heads and saluted me by putting one hand straight up and down between
their eyes. Then they offered us all a blessing, and we went through
the marketplace and back to the car.
I got in the front passenger seat. I was again being lectured by Arunabh
on why I should not be encouraging the beggars, and again I was explaining
why I gave to only perfect beggars. An older woman walked up to my window
and started talking to me. She went on for a while, holding out her arms,
repeating herself. She had a very grating voice.
I said to the guys that this was an example of an almost perfect beggar.
She was older, and it seemed like not many people would give her anything.
The one thing I didn't like was her voice, so I rolled down my window
and put my finger to my lips and said "shh".
She got the message, saluted me just like the Yogis did, and stood there.
Swarup got out and talked to her in Telegu, and she answered him. Then
she turned back to me, and started talking again, and got louder. Again
I put my finger to my lips, and again she saluted and went silent.
I told the guys that I had found my perfect beggar! I pulled out 500
rupees (remember the 15 Yogis were excited sharing 60) and handed it
to her. She took the money, and started talking again, and I put my finger
to my lips. She bowed, saluted, and walked away, looking over her shoulder
Swarup got back in the car, smiling. "Where are you gonna put it
all?", he asked. The lady owned a food stand, and I had just bought
it and its entire contents. Swarup said that he tried
to stop me, but I was too excited with my perfect
beggar, and too quick with my payout to her.
So my perfect beggar turned out to be not so perfect. We caught up with
her, and I begged her to keep the stand and
the food, then begged her pardon for my bad assumption.
She bowed, bewildered, and we headed out.
As we were leaving, a cow put her head into the stand, stole a bag of
goodies, and sauntered down the street with it in her
mouth. A couple of ragged children ran behind,
begging the cow to give them some food.