Monday, October 27, 2008


Begging: a profession? a misfortune? a job? a scourge? a spiritual practice? an industry? a stain on society? freedom of choice?

Like tipping, the subject of my previous post, begging creates an unequal relationship between giver and receiver, an unbalanced one-way exchange with the amount of money transferred depending on the generosity and intentions of the donor with the receiver having very little to say.

Because I was born in India and spent my formative years there, begging was a normal part of my environment, when I used to go to the market with my mother or to the Anarkali bazaar with my father. I saw beggars every day, and although I found them annoying, I would always stare at those with especially startling deformities such as grotesquely twisted limbs or too many fingers or tiny microencephalitic heads, I did not feel responsible for their misfortune nor did I think I could--or should--improve their futures.
Sometimes, against my mother’s wishes I would hand out coins, knowing that this would embolden other beggars to run towards me, extending their hands and whining ‘paisa, memsahib’ but by then I felt I had done my good deed for the day and could convincingly wave my empty hands or pockets to demonstrate I had nothing left to give. These are my memories as a seven- or eight-year old child but their enduring clarity has left me curious to hear the stories brought back by American visitors to India to hear how they react to the poverty in general and beggars in particular often a defining part of their experience. Of course beggars are not restricted to India but are found in virtually every country of our planet.

I am also most curious about what it’s like to be a beggar, who becomes one and who remains one and how beggars and begging fit into Indian society today. Do the beggars of Mumbai or New Delhi have anything in common with the homeless of New York City?

That’s the thing with the subjects I choose for Tidings. Before I know it I’m burrowing around in some unexpectedly deep, complex, mysterious, weird corner of the universe. Begging has always been with us and probably always will be. It may even compete for primacy with the world’s other oldest profession. Yes, begging is considered a profession, not only by many of those who practice it but by academic researchers too. A blogger from Ghana describes begging as “one of the fastest growing sectors of the country’s economy”. That pronouncement certainly gave me pause—perhaps it’s time to rethink begging! Should I be gloomily realistic and propose that with the economy being what it is these days we may want to consider begging as a viable emerging career alternative? If not on the streets, then at least to join the swarms of beggars on the Internet here and here.
The way people feel about beggars seems to go broaden the more they’ve been exposed to begging in their lives. On first contact, they take it very personally, almost as if they themselves are the victims. They experience confusion and fear, especially when confronted and surrounded by a number of clamoring beggars in a crowded Indian city. Greater exposure to beggars over time leads to self-analysis: people ask what is my contemptuous, fearful rejection of beggars doing to me and my soul?
Amy teaches high school math in New Jersey and has a rather pragmatic attitude towards beggars. She says she feels no obligation to give money to either beggars in India or to the homeless in New York City. Compassion, yes and food or small useful gifts perhaps, but not money and then only to adult women not children. Unsure of where the money will end up, she feels giving money will only perpetuate the problem.
Isabella, a high school senior from Long Island, New York, describes her first visit to India a year ago, when she was 17. She struggles with what the right thing to do is, unsure whether giving to a beggar is a good thing or a bad thing. “I really don’t know”, is her heartfelt conclusion. Perhaps, if they were were honest, this would also be the conclusion of broader philosophical and public policy debates about poverty and its solutions in think tanks and NGOs around the world.
I wondered if maybe one gets used to beggars and develops a more resigned attitude over time so I emailed Midge, a school chum from the days we both went to Woodstock School, Mussoorie, U.P. Being an old India hand, born and raised there and currently on sabbatical in Bangalore, I thought she might have a well-developed philosophy about how she and her husband Byron behave when beggars come up to them, asking for money. Midge is troubled by how easy it is to transform beggars into “The Other”, ignoring their presence and thereby denying their existence rather than confronting them and acknowledging them as fellow human beings. Whatever we give beggars, she says, we know is ‘totally inadequate to solve their problems’ We can’t help them and so we feel “like a rat”, no matter what we do.
Another friend, Milda, had visited the holy city of Vanarsi on the Ganges River where her terrifying experiences with beggars have left her not just with vivid memories but also with new resolve: She tells me: “If I would go back...I would go back with a different mind set. It is I who failed the poor...not they who failed me. I was not prepared. And I should have been.”

However heartfelt these Western views are, they do not begin to chronicle the many-tentacled position that begging actually occupies in the narrative of Indian culture and history. For a more nuanced understanding I interviewed two native-born Indians.

I spoke with Mr. S. Swaminathan, or Swami as he asked me to call him, in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, where he conducts motivational and communication workshops. I had came across his satirical article
in which his purpose was to reframe beggars as people with professional skills: they understand site selection, for example, by choosing the right place and the right time, they are skilled at “practicing the art of sustained irritation until the alms giver breaks down and puts money in the begging bowl”. They also know how to network to identify clients and learn the latest techniques, from their colleagues, all skills that could be applied to more productive ends. Begging is not a choice, he insists and demands that politicians and society accept responsibility by creating dignity for beggars through viable jobs. “Instead of patronizing the beggar”, he says, “persuade the politicians!”

I also stumbled across what its editor, Vikas Kamat, claims is the largest personal blog on the web, citing not only its 4 or 5 million page views a month but also the more than 100 person-years it represents of stories, commentaries and photographs from his India-based family . In an article written by his father before his death and translated by Vikas, we learn about the varieties of begging, ranging from inherited tradition to the temporary and circumstantial to the professional with their sharply defined and defended territorial claims. I urge you to visit this site for a fascinating and illustrated tour through the complexities of begging in India.
When we talked, Vikas explained that donors need beggars, to allow them to learn and practice humility and to provide them “a fast track to heaven” to earn punya or divine credits, sort of like the Jewish concept of mitzvah. In other words, the beggar-donor relationship is symbiotic, with a spiritual rationale, not merely a transfer of money from one person to another. Hindu ritual includes learning how to beg on entering the monkhood or taking a vow to beg for, say, one day a week as an exercise in humility. To become a successful beggar requires many skills and props, including acting, performance, storytelling, wardrobe design, training and outfitting of animals with their decorative dress. (The two black-and-white photos were taken at my parents' house a long time ago: they had brought in a monkey wallah to perform at their grandson's birthday party.)

Looking at a beggar’s life from the inside like this makes it appear suddenly colorful and a lot less drab, almost enviable, at least for a short stint.

Beggars are not doing nearly as well as they once did, however. Since the halcyon days and “due to an increase in mankind’s selfishness and small-mindedness, (the beggar community) feels they are not able to make a living”. Another factor is the institutionalization of government departments designed to eliminate or relocate beggar communities, not a good omen if you’re thinking about begging as a career track should the Apocalypse appear more imminent. But then there’s always the Internet!

I wanted to know how Vikas, as an Indian, thinks about those visitors to his country who are overwhelmed and horrified by the beggars and the poverty they witness? Agreeing over cultures, continents and generations with Isabella, he tells me there is no binary answer. It’s part of life, part of India, something he grew up with but also a sensitive, controversial subject--and a dilemma. Patronizing beggars keeps the profession alive but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be able to depend on our fellow humans when in need.

Whatever their personal attitudes to begging are, everyone I spoke to agrees that supporting beggars does little to help them and only adds to the social problem. If we want a beggar-free world as it is today, skill training and job creation must replace the tin cup as income and the street as home. Poverty is the cause and beggars are the effect. The question then become how to replace all those good karma chips and place-in-heaven tokens and all that soft-hearted guilt with tough love. I have another contrarian question: in a democracy, which India is, don’t beggars have a right to choose their profession? What gives us the right to take it away from them or to relocate them out of sight so they won’t offend the tourists?

After our interview, Vikas Kamat continued our discussion on his blog.

Begging and Beggars is also available as a podcast. In the radio series Tidings from Hazel Kahan, it was produced by Tony Ernst and broadcast on WPKN on October 23, 2008.