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?
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.