One of the oldest and most unchecked social stink-issues of the country fill the great cities of India with a population of destitutes. It is more characteristic of city-life than markets, government places or civilians themselves, writes Vinodini Nair for the The Fifth Estate.
What they do, where they can be found, or elaborate strategies to exploit a bypasser’s sympathetic or moral temperament are known details that bore the urban reader. Why they’re there is a topic for classroom debate. In the metropolis, the booming economy also goes side by side with the existence of such street urchins begging in front of big malls and on six-lane roads, and they make those places seem suddenly superfluous and unjust. A living admonishment of excess.
Against this familiar attack on the senses the urban middleclass in India have long evolved defence. The self-trained pedestrian ignores frail people with missing limbs on pavements, which are threats to ambience of living and peace of mind, because he/she could resolve his notional conflict about apathy when the abhorrence loses its newness, and is no longer a person, but a feature of the environment. Natives to cities are resigned to a state of indifference since as far as they can remember. The others learn this admirable mindset with experience.
But a difficult challenge is presented by child beggary. A good example makes four year olds clanking plates in front of a signal, on a busy road, under one’s nose. What happens to these girls and boys out in a season of climatic extremes is left to imagination. There are no human rights involved, there’s no one to save them. It’s not very relevant. But conversations could be brought to embarrassing halts when “reality” announces its existence outside autorickshaws or floor buses, when in the ensuing silence of ignoring the child both conversationalists are conscious of each other’s trained apathies while being humiliated by their own. And then, their sensitivities are dulled further towards the norm that is required to keep their frame of mind fixed at a higher pedestal amidst the distractions of the city.
Mothers with babies are similar tragedies that have lost appeal through repeated occurrence. Old and diseased people present equivalent situations. Religion has much to do with why Indian roads sustain such a large crowd of them –projecting alm-giving as a virtuous act has unintentionally normalized beggary in Indian society. Encouraging people to give is encouraging people to take. As it happens the giving is half-hearted, and the taking can get rather too enthusiastic.
Coming face to face with insistent beggars can over time erode the composure of weak-willed people, turning them hobophobic. I have seen people who leave train compartments in a hurry before the arrival of beggars; I have seen people who feign sleep, or shut themselves in the toilet. It is an imaginary plague on the conscience. When such a person looks right into one’s eyes (they always do), it takes resolve to stare back with defiance, which most traingoers clearly lack as eye-contact is seldom made.
The scenario of a train journey is worth meditation, considering how beggars form veritable festivals in the lower class compartments. Peddlers of pointless items succeed in begging by implication. Others are not so subtle. They beg with prayers and agarbhaktis, by announcements, by swiping clean floors, by singing, with repulsive displays of acrobatic children. Over the course of a trip from Delhi to Chennai, one would be able to meet at least twenty acts of different varieties.
This railway brigade is best understood if one could categorize it properly. The first variety of people one sees are hawkers, who are not of topical interest except for special circumstances where they can go out of hand. The second group is the umbrella for those pictures of misery earlier described, fake or genuine as they may be. It is sometimes not clear whether such beggary is done out of desperation or in the spirit of a job; I’m quite familiar with tales where the mercy-sweeper sprouts his missing leg at the next station and is seen strolling off.
It should not come as a surprise to the well travelled reader that I give transgender beggars an entire class to themselves. In any part of India above Kerala and Tamil Nadu, such people are given religious right to confer blessings under Hindu belief. How that advantage has evolved into, among other things, the countrywide railway scourge of persuasive hijda begging we see today is not very well understood. They move around in groups during train journeys, offering blessings to passengers, willing or otherwise, in return for payment. Urban neglect and apathy are futile defences against them. Where passive beggars need to resort to shouting or drum rolls to bring themselves out of the patchwork and have their presence acknowledged, hijdas make their signature loud claps.
Their conduct with passengers involves grotesque exaggerations of feminine movement and speech, with polite demands for money. It is common for them to refuse to leave the passenger’s presence without alms; indeed, in the North they often give the air of coming to collect what is already ordained for them. The tradition of being paid is so strong that it empowers them to lose civility with adamant passengers; it is somewhat improper for a family to have to confront an unamused hijda beggar.
In such a manner, and with no hindrance whatsoever from law enforcement, active beggary is conducted in trains in most parts of India by transgender groups. Metropolitan cities like Mumbai also see them beg on street signals, while hijda prostitution in red-light areas is a subject on which a whole disturbing book can be written but which I do not have the wits to describe. Their plight, social discrimination and HIV affliction make for tiresome stories which are just as overtold and just as irrelevant as others relating to beggars. Unsurprisingly it is more repulsion than conscience struggle that makes the Indian traveller pay up and forget, if he may, an encounter with these people.
For all its evidence today, forcible begging is still a matter of curiosity in comparison to the more serious problem of forced begging, of kidnapped children in particular, a supreme joke directed at India’s overpraised social progress. Such stories, which I cannot detail here, destroy parents. They also supply the streets with some the children that we readily ignore when the light is red. Filling their coin-plates is a roundabout way of encouraging that vicious establishment. Conscientious citizens of India are now set to meditate between such an encouragement, and denial that would leave them to starve and die (which they do, every year and in unpublished numbers), a practice that is against common ethics if one thinks about it.
So naturally, the citizens of India choose to stop thinking altogether. It is the last line of defence for even the most stubbornly apathetic person. If one is to live one’s life without inexplicable guilt for the dregs of society, focusing on realistic personal aims, one has to grow up, and understand that this is the two-faced nature of developed India.
And that is why we will not stop seeing beggars on the streets.
Written by Vinodini Nair for The Fifth Estate
The views and opinions expressed in this post are solely those of the writer’s and not of The Fourth Estate or The Fifth Estate. The statements made by the writers have not been verified in any manner by TFE or T5E .