Up until recently, I harboured a secret. A shameful secret. I’d hit a beggar in Mumbai. Not just any beggar, but an old woman with a missing arm. And I’d hit her with considerable force. I thought that no one else could’ve possibly done something so awful. I was wrong though.
When I read this outstanding article, I realised that I’m not the only person to have have hit a beggar here. What’s more, when my friends read it many of them admitted to also having hit, and even kicked, a beggar. Yes, we are all foreigners. And vicious foreigners too, by the sounds of it.
What turned me into such a monster that I hit a defenseless old woman? I was stuck in an auto rickshaw at a set of traffic lights. My husband was with me. She ignored him, thinking, for an obvious reason, that I was a better target. She started tapping me on the leg and waving her deformed arm in my face. I told her nicely (in Hindi) not today. She continued tapping and moaning. I told her again that she wouldn’t get any money from me. She increased the frequency of her tapping on my leg. I didn’t appreciate her touching me like that, so I shouted at her not to do it. Then, I turned my back towards her to ignore her. She responded by redirecting her tapping to my head, and heavily too, with her dirty hand. The line was crossed. I snapped, turned around, and smacked her hard — even shocking myself. It wasn’t one of my finest moments in Mumbai.
It didn’t surprise me that the beggar woman didn’t seem to want to get the message though. Begging is serious business in Mumbai. This recent article in the Mid Day newspaper reveals just how serious.
As the article explains, beggars will invariably belong to a gang, where they are vigorously trained to be tenacious and keep harassing a person until they receive something. New beggars learn from the seniors in the heirachy. They are also shown how to drag their disabled bodies in front of people, fall and roll dramatically on the road, and slash their own bodies if caught pickpocketing by police. Apparently, the police are unwilling to take on the task of sending them for medical treatment, so they let them go.
Each beggar must give the money earned to the head of the gang, who distributes it equally between everyone after taking the biggest share for himself. A beggar will usually take home 500 to 1,000 rupees on a normal day, and more during festivals. This is a heck of lot more than what the city’s hardest workers, such as auto rickshaw drivers and maids, earn.
What’s even more shocking is the booming business of renting babies out to beggars. The reality is that those lethargic babies being carried around by beggars are most likely not their own. The will have rented them for around 100 rupees a day. I’ll never forget reading this shocking story about a nanny who hired a Bangalore couple’s baby out to beggars while they were at work.
Apparently, the majority of eunuch beggars in Mumbai are not even real. They’re men dressed up in woman’s clothing and trained to imitate them.
Positively, there are many charities set up to help get beggars off the streets, especially children. However, the sad thing is that many of them prefer to beg because it’s much easier. According to one beggar, “It’s kind of a long term employment. Bhai (the head of the gang) takes care of our basic needs. All we have to do is sit or beg in a particular area.”
It’s difficult to see a beggar on the street and not feel anything, whether annoyance or pity. But give money to them? I won’t because it doesn’t directly help them. I always try and speak to them as kindly as possible, but there are limits. Unfortunately, I’ve found out that my behaviour can be as extreme and as unpredictable as this city.
Photo: www.flickr.com user gregor_y