Two Stories About Begging

A barefoot boy of about six walks up to me with his hand held out in the Kolkata train station. He brings his hand to his mouth several times, in case the open hand wasn’t clear enough. I’m not looking directly at him, but I can tell from a few quick glances that his clothes and hair are filthy.

The woman sitting next to me—I’m sitting on a piece of newspaper on the floor, like almost everyone who’s seated in the train station—makes a “psshhht!” noise at the boy and waves her hand at him, the way you would shoo off a misbehaving cat.

I’m eating an apple, but I have a couple of those premade samosas that I bought from the Delhi supermarket in my backpack. I pull them out and hand the plastic baggie to the boy.

He looks at it for maybe two seconds. I am surprised to see that he not only fails to look grateful, but he actually looks indifferent or even distressed. He points to the apple and makes a whining sound.

“Are you kidding me right now?” I say to him. “I just gave you food, kid. Come on. I need this.” And I do. I’ve been short in the fresh fruits and vegetables department and I just invested a lot of time in cleaning this apple. “I need the fiber, kid. No way.”

“Apple, apple,” he whines. I shake my head.

The woman next to me says something in Bengali—I think she’s mad I gave him any food at all—and tries to shoo him away even more loudly. But the kid just stands and points at my apple. A small crowd is gathering. “Apple, khana, khana!” the boy whines. It means “food.”

“I just GAVE you khana!” I say, pointing at the baggie. “Khana, there!”

“BAH!” he shouts at me, then sprints off. I shake my head, saying to no one in particular, “How do you say, ‘You ungrateful little shit’ in Hindi?”

————————————————————————————————–

At the train station in New Jalpaiguri, the transport hub just south of Darjeeling, I’m just sitting down to eat my dinner when a barefoot boy of about seven walks up to me and holds out his hand.

I’m about to go to Kolkata and an American friend, Anne, has told me about a volunteer opportunity there with Mother Teresa’s motherhouses, homes set up for the destitute, the dying, and the handicapped (both mentally and physically).  My Lonely Planet’s paragraph about the motherhouses says that the nuns strongly discourage people from giving to beggars, because it encourages them to continue to beg rather than seek more sustainable help from institutions like theirs.

I’ve been giving away some rupees here and there to beggars, but since I’m about to go to Kolkata, I’m thinking of this bit from the Lonely Planet and I think, Right, don’t encourage him.  I unwrap the first part of my dinner, an omelet made fresh at a food stand downstairs.  It’s still very hot.  It’s been cooked in lots of oil.  It’s delicious.

The kid holds out his hand.  I ignore him.  He stands there, getting jostled as porters and men with briefcases push past.  I continue eating my omelet.  He pushes his hand closer, so it’s almost in my face.  I shake my head.  The omelet has chilis.  I crunch down on one and pant from the resulting heat.

The kid holds out his hand.

I ignore him.

I finish my omelet and unwrap a samosa.  The kid moves on to a teenager standing next to me.  The teenager ignores him for a minute, then hands the kid a cookie from a package he’s holding.

The samosa is surprisingly hot.  I take a bite.  The inside is a beautiful deep brown.  It’s richly spiced but not too hot.  Excellent for train station food.

The kid walks past me and tries a trio of men leaning on the railing across from me.  One doesn’t look up from his cellphone.  Another tries his pockets for change, finds nothing, resumes talking to his friend.  The teenager finishes the cookies and drops the wrapper on the ground.

The kid disappears down the stairs to the platform for a while.  I eat the samosa slowly, reading snippets of an article printed on the newspaper my food was wrapped in.  I’m almost finished with the samosa when the kid comes back.  He just holds his hand out.  I haven’t even looked at him.

“Go to school, kid,” I say to him (to myself).  “That will do you much better than this.”

He waits.  I finish the samosa and take a long drink of water.  He pushes his hand in front of me.  I unwrap my ladoo, a sugary orange dessert.  I start eating the ladoo.  Not terrible.

The kid walks away.

I package all the wrappings from my dinner up into a small plastic bag.  I watch the kid disappear down the stairs.  I suddenly feel very bad.

I realize I have an apple in my backpack.  I pull it out.  I’ll give it to the kid if he comes back, I tell myself.

But the kid doesn’t come back.  I stand up and look for him.  He’s descended to the platform, where he walks onto the train tracks, even though there are overpasses he could easily use to cross them.  He kicks at some trash along one of the rails.  He scampers up onto the platform on the other side and saunters along it.  I can see from here how dirty his clothes are.  When he comes to a leaky pipe, he stops beneath it and rinses his hands in the drip for a moment before sauntering on.

I think about calling to him and tossing the apple down, except I would probably miss and then there would just be an exploded apple on the platform.  He crosses under my overpass and I look for him on the other side, but I can’t find him.

The disgust I feel when I see Indians (or Americans) ignoring each other’s suffering — that’s the disgust I feel for myself right then.

I sit back down on my backpack and look at the bag of newspaper pieces where my dinner was.  The teenager’s cookie wrapper is still on the ground.  I think about getting it, but then a train comes and a hundred people hurry past, stepping on it, and then it blows out of reach.

I realize I am crying.  It would have been so easy to have given the kid the apple. It would have been so easy.

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5 responses to “Two Stories About Begging

  1. Don’t beat yourself up Chelsea. You have an awful lot of good karma going for your volunteer work at the motherhouse, and you will never have enough apples to feed all the beggar children in India. Your chosen life work is to help others help themselves. You are doing fine. It is a very difficult situation. xoxo

  2. Hello Chelsea…this is Seshu, your mom’s colleague. She mentioned you are travelling India and shared your blog so am interested to read your observations on my different, chaotic and beautiful country.
    I am a very harsh critic on begging. It is a very bad practice which cashes on human emotions like pity, mercy and compassion. And looking at a big picture it is a huge web of organized illegal business run by goons and is even linked in different ways to human trafficking. Atleast 90% of the beggars allover the country fall under this web especially in tourist locations.
    Now that being said these beggars only care about money. That kid would have been more satisfied if you give him 5 Rupees instead of that apple which is 20-30Rupees because that is how he is trained by the goon who controls him or in some cases his parent. He will have to give all his begged money to him. It is a whole system (Slumdog Millionaire style)
    They even ask money saying that they are hungry and if you give them food, I have seen some of them trashing the food you give them in front of you. They would not even value your emotion unless it is money.
    Also as you were informed it would also prevent them from looking for genuine work. So next time when you have this experience dont feel bad about it as it is not worth it. But I can totally understand the way you feel as I was on the same boat.
    Now I feel that I would rather give 1000 Rs for that kid to goto school but not even a Rupee for his begging.

    Anyways have a safe trip and stay out of heat and watch what you eat especially if it is street food….cheers

  3. Chelsea – you should not feel so bad. You are such a giving person, which is why this upsets you, but listen to what your mom’s friend said about the begging situation. You will be doing more this summer to help people there than giving a piece of fruit to a beggar. You should feel good about yourself!!! Love you!

  4. Thanks, everyone. Seshu, thank you for reply. You are right. Since I have written this blog, I’ve heard from lots of people, including the sisters at Mother Teresa’s motherhouse, about all the negative consequences of encouraging begging. And I do know that giving children money is the worst idea, because that money will just go to whatever crime boss is using the children to gather cash. There are a lot of scams involving children here in Kolkata. I fell for one that involved getting mehndi done on my hand. I’ll write a post about it later. It IS a very nice mehndi design, but I cared less about that once I realized that my money was very obviously not going to actually go to the children in question. Ugh.

    Yes, I also would rather give 1000 Rs for a child to go to school. Sometimes it feels difficult to figure out the best way to do that, ie not all organizations do the job that the promise they will do. BUT there ARE many organizations doing good work here. It’s heartening to see that.

  5. You do what you can. Feel good about that. You cannot do everything–this you know. xxx

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