Friday, June 04, 2010

Poverty in India

When I was young I knew some people who went to India and came back with stories of how shocking the poverty was. Carts to collect the dead making their rounds every morning, beggars flooding the streets--the way they described it made an indelible mental image and I knew I never wanted to go to such a terrifying place.

So traveling there in March I was particularly curious about what I would experience. Would it be so bad as the stereotypes? I'd been to poor countries before and seen dead rats and tattered children together in the streets but how would India compare?

Poverty in India
As missionaries, my parents live there in under rather unusual circumstances--because of the political history of Christianity they are prohibited from giving money to beggars. Too many times have churches been guilty of buying converts so that as missionaries, if they were seen to give even a small amount to beggars, it would jeopardize religious and political relations. As guests of my parents I had assumed that we'd be under the same restrictions.

The first day in Bangalore I saw no beggars and it wasn't until the next day as we were leaving Mahabalipuram that I saw her. An old woman squatting on the pavement against a fence, her knees bent up around her chest and her arms resting limply on the ground near her bare feet. Her white sari, while still beautiful around her straggling silver hair, was dirty and obviously of an inferior quality and she had none of the typical gold jewelry most Indian women wear.

As we passed by her she raised her left arm, her hand cupped, and called something. As my shadow moved over her I looked down and noticed that inside her wrinkled face and sunken lips her eyes shown white and dead against her dark skin, matching the white of her sari and standing out all the more starkly because of it.

The cataracts were so thick across her eyes she probably couldn't see me but I saw her and, not wanting to be rude, I tried not to stare. I'd seen homeless people in America holding their cardboard signs at intersections, asking for work or help, but I'd never seen someone so pitiful as this. Probably someone's mother or grandmother, I wondered what had brought her to sit there, waiting for tourists to pass by and share a few coins on their way to the souvenir vendors a few yards away.

I wanted to help her but felt powerless to know what to do. Afraid to give her any money for fear of causing problems for my parents, I did nothing and crossed to the other side of the sidewalk to wait while Andrew bought a green coconut to drink.

Later on in the trip we were driving through Bangalore. Stopped in traffic and waiting for our turn to inch through the intersection, the car sat there in the sun as a man approached the car. He loomed up suddenly on my left and stuck out his arm against the window. Where a healthy arm should have been there was a withered and deformed limb that looked as little like an arm as a sapling that has been burned by the sun and wind looks like a tree.

I was shocked and wasn't sure what to do. He thrust his arm toward me and said something--I'm sure I don't remember anything that resembled English--and it was clear what he wanted. It was one of those situations where things kind of froze and the horror of what I was seeing clogged up my brain.

Suddenly the traffic began to inch forward and as our turn to move came my mother said, "It's alright if you want to give him something."

"But I thought you weren't allow to give money to beggars," I said.

"We're not--but it's okay if you want to do something,"

As I turned over this new information the car moved and we were gone, the man was left standing in the intersection to wait for the next car and I felt a new emotion--realizing that I could have given something to help this man or the woman with cataracts but that I'd missed my chance. Secretly I pledged that the next time this happened I wouldn't let the moment slip by so carelessly. Next time I'd be prepared and it wasn't too long before I was given a chance.

At another intersection we were again waiting for traffic to move and I sat there, watching the hordes of people moving all around us. As always, we rode with Sampath driving us in the Ford SUV that belonged to the missionary office there in Bangalore and which was a glaring symbol of luxury and money in a town filled with rickshaws and ox carts. While it had tinted windows I soon figured out that the windows weren't as private as I initially thought--too many times I'd seen people wave at me or stare as we drove by to think that I was as hidden as I felt and now, stopped in traffic, a child came up to the car and made her way directly to the window where Andrew was sitting.

About Lillian's age, with chin-length hair, big brown eyes and a dirty face, she held out her hand and began her begging by slapping on the window to show her desperation. When I realized what she was doing all my mother-ness rose up and, remembering my new pledge, I said to Andrew, "Give her something," and I reached into my purse to pull out some rupees.

I passed him a ten rupee note (about 20 cents U.S.) and he rolled down the window to give it to the little girl. The moment his window was cracked and the rupees were on their way toward her hand there was this palpable change. She nearly jumped inside the car to grab at the money and at that moment several other children swarmed out of nowhere around her to make a grab for the bill themselves. Never taking her eyes from the piece of paper, the second it got close enough she snatched at it and, so quickly you could hardly follow the motion with your eyes, she folded the money into her chest and it disappeared. Then she turned and ran away before the other children seemed to realize she was gone.

The rest of them tried their hand at getting more money but the scene reminded me a bit of some of the nature shows I'd seen where one moment the sweet little chimpanzees are playing happily in the woods together and the next they've turned on one another, tearing each other to bits. It was startling and disturbing and I realized that this was a child who'd lived her life by begging. She was a professional and she was good at it and she would take those 10 rupees home as her portion of the earnings for the day.

Talking with Mom she said that there have been plenty of times when she'd seen children begging or mothers with babies begging and so often she'd ache to help them and want to give them money but then as she came to know the country better she learned that it's not uncommon for families--particularly families from the rural areas outside the city--to come in to beg every day as the family business. It's not unheard of for babies to be used as props for theatrical value, even drugging them for added drama, and just as in America, it can be hard to know who is truly in need and who is just trying to make their living from the pity of strangers.

It was all a very strange experience. To first feel that I'd missed my chance to be kind and then, when again offered a chance, to realize I'd most likely been scammed was all startling and uncomfortable.

So to answer my original questions: Are there beggars in India? The answer is: Oh my yes. Lots of them. Are there people dying in the streets? Maybe--I didn't see any but then I stayed in a lot of the more affluent areas.

But while I may know the answers to those questions I still have the same questions I have whenever I see people suffering in my own back yard, namely: How do I know who is really in need and how can I best help them?

Perhaps it's just a matter of doing those little things whenever you have the chance and letting the Lord sort out the details of whether it was needed or not.

Sponsored by Polkadot Peacock for children's bedding.


jean said...

You are exactly correct. It can be very hard deciding if the begging is real or just a scam. We live just outside of NYC and I am a softie for anyone who looks for a handout. I always bring some change and sneak it to them when my husband isn't looking. I'd rather give it and be scammed then to just walk away and pretend I didn't see them.

Steph said...

My husband is from El Paso, Texas. I am from a small town in Wyoming. We don't have begging here. The closest I've come to experiencing it is in downtown Denver where it's illegal. The first trip we made to El Paso to see his family broke my heart. Families from Juarez come over to El Paso to beg. Some drug and use their babies and some RENT OUT THEIR BABIES. That thought absolutely HORRIFIED ME!! My husband and mother-in-law acted like it was an every day occurrence and shrugged it off. I have never been able to get that out of my head. I didn't give any money away on that trip or any others because my husband said they'd fight over it and it would make it worse. *sigh*

My husband worked off the coast of India for a time. He describes it a lot the way you do. Sadly he was fairly immune to the poverty having grown up where he did. When he would tell me the stories it would just re-break my heart.

Such poverty and such a lifestyle are so hard for us to really understand and grasp until we've been there and seen it. I am forever changed by our trips to Texas. I didn't know such poverty existed or such desperation.

Mrs. Ohtobe said...

My husband is not real into helping out the homeless and I can understand his point of view. He is concerned what they do with the money we give them. Will they actually eat or buy alcohol, cigs or drugs instead? I think it is pretty simple. You help others with a giving heart and that clears you with your maker - the intent is on HOW you gave, not what THEY did with it because you really have no control in that situation. They will have to answer for it one day just like I will have to answer for it if I turn a blind eye to those in need.

Unknown said...

It is human nature to want to help an individual in need. We feel better about what we give because it is personal, one person to another. Our three years in India has taught me the tremendous value of supporting NGO's and other groups that are helping the poor. It is difficult on an individual basis unless you know quite a good deal about the particular situation to know what to do. Often what you do does not have the effect you desired.

Time and time again in India I have learned the value of working with good, honest organizations that have well laid out plans on how to assist people in need. The best plans are those that help them help themselves, though sometimes you need to provide basic needs to they can help themselves.

Give generously, but give to organizations equipped and experienced in helping the poor. Limit your direct contributions to individuals to friends and families where you know the circumstances of the people involved.


Allysha said...

On my mission in Paris we experienced the same thing. Families (usually foreign, many from India and that part of the world) would set their kids out to beg instead of sending them to school, thereby perpetuating the cycle. It was utterly frustrating.

But you're right. You do what you feel like you should to help others out and leave it to the Lord to judge who really needed it and who didn't.

RoeH said...

Oh my gosh. I have no words. I think I just want to go out and kiss the American ground.

Chrissy Johnson said...

Oh, ditto what Lucy said. I feel the same way you do, Michelle. If I saw a child begging I wouldn't be able to NOT give them something, anything! There's no way of knowing who might be a puppet on a string for a larger operation or who is really, genuinely, needful and starving. I'd have to give them something, and like you said, let God sort out the details. I do give to the homeless here by charitable donations to orgs and to folks on the street. Whatever the reason, homelessness is sad and I can help a little, and even if they're buying alcohol or food who am I to forecast what they're using it for? What if it's really for a sandwich? I'm not God, I don't know their thoughts. I refuse to be cold. A large percentage of homeless in this city and many other American cities are children, and while you normally don't see them begging in America, they are around, so donating to a place like Claire House help immensely. Sorry to go on a tangent, I'm just so moved by your story and understand your sentiments exactly. I mean, think of the story that Jesus told of Lazarus and the rich man, think of compassion. If you're out a buck or two and concerned about where it's going or that the beggar or homeless person used it for reasons you don't approve of, oh well you're out a buck or two. But what if that buck or two helped someone get crosstown on the bus to the shelter, or to get a hamburger at McDonalds (which I've seen homeless folks here do after they've been given some money at an intersection)?

Kim said...

Beautifully written and so moving. All we can do is our best, and pray that it's blessed.

Heart2Heart said...


I love your final statement, that you will let God work out the details. That is the only thing we can know for sure when we offer our help to those in need.

What will they do with it, will it be used for drugs or alcohol? Only God does, and as long as we do the will of God and take care of the poor, He will work out the details.

Love and Hugs ~ Kat

Inkling said...

I'm with you on this one. When I first moved to the west coast of Canada, I gave beggars money more than once. They were always near the grocery store. At Christmas, we drove all over town to give them a hot meal I'd stashed in a gift bag with a homemade scarf. And then I was here for a few years and discovered the chronic "stranded and homeless anything helps" guys. Some even worked in shifts. I found myself getting irritated the other day when I came out of the grocery store only to see my husband giving some guy money out of the window of our '92 Jetta. I was pretty sure my husband was getting scammed and that we were just enabling more of the drug and alcohol problems that are so rampant in our area among the homeless.

But then my husband said that it was the cheapest surgery he's ever had. He said that for the small amount he gave that guy, God gave him heart surgery, helping him keep a soft heart even if that guy really was scamming him. I was still irritated, but over time realized that maybe we are just called to give grace and mercy, and not worry about judging the guy. It's hard to know what to do. But my husband figures we get to be the hands and feet of Jesus, and we get to let Jesus figure out the rest of the issue with the person whose problems are bigger than we can possibly fix.

He and I would be mush if we'd been in India with you. I can't even begin to imagine what that must have been like.

Musings of a Housewife said...

I can't imagine. Truly. And I think you come to the right conclusion at the end. We were discussing this in Bible Study this week. Not that I hand money to every beggar that I see, but I think sometimes we are called to give out of generosity without knowing where the money goes. Ideally we give thru organizations I trust like Compassion, but even with that, there is a certain level of trust that we have that it goes to good use, but we'll never really know. Still, it is good to give.

I linked to this post today.

Shannon said...

That kind of extreme poverty is just something you don't really see in the states. We lived near the trash pickers compound in Jakarta. Whole families, generations of the same family, lived there and made a living of sorts by sorting though trash looking for those items the could be sold so they could make a little money or those items they could reuse themselves. It was horrible but to an extent you do become numb when you see it day and day out.

It is life changing to see this kind of poverty and makes me profoundly grateful for the accident of being born in a country where I have so many opportunities that millions will never have.

Stephanie said...

Your last line was beautiful. I feel the same way. Sometimes I question whether people really need the money and whether money really helps, but then I remind myself that God can "sort out the details." Better to give than to judge.

MrsPrincess said...

This is a beautiful post. I think we all get caught up in the business of being casual to the details around us and when we are aware, we're unsure 'how' to help. I often think when I travel somewhere else 'how can people ignore what's right in front of them?' and then I come home and find I do it too, just in a different way. Your post has inspired me today...thank you. And I have to agree, God will sort out the details and it's imperative that I remember that I am also a beggar for the mercy and grace of the Lord. I also know that I will be asked by Him, 'were you a wise and faithful servant with the gifts and talents I gave you? Or, were you slothful and careless when you could have blessed others when I gave you so much?

Anonymous said...

On a personal level, I give food or clothes to strangers who want help, but I give money to a large latter-day saint organization that is well-known for helping the poor and victims of natural disaster.

We can avoid giving money directly to strangers and give them the physical things they need instead. We can even go with them to pay their utility bills, or take them to the doctor when needed.

Anonymous said...

On a personal level, I give food or clothes to strangers who want help, but I give money to a large latter-day saint organization that is well-known for helping the poor and victims of natural disaster.

We can avoid giving money directly to strangers and give them the physical things they need instead. We can even go with them to pay their utility bills, or take them to the doctor when needed.

Unknown said...

Another fascinating insight.

I have the same mixed emotions, wanting to help, but not sure if direct giving is the way to go.

When on holiday in Paris, there were always some begging near our hotel. On our last day, as we were leaving, I packed up all our remaining snacks, drinks and fruit (we had a fridge in our hotel room) and handed it to a man in the street before we left. He was surprised and delighted, and was happily munching on an apple and waving as we drove away. At least he ate well that day. It still left me with mixed emotions - I had helped only one person on one day, and there are so many, but it is a start.

Here in N Ireland there is a little, but not on the same scale as other places we have visted.