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‘Beggars’ or ‘Asking for Help’?

Life in Mumbai forces you into a constant moral dilemma. When approached by those less fortunate for money, do you give, or not? My instinct is to give, but my experience, and advice from others, is not to. The reason often cited is that it perpetuates the cycle of dependence, and inhibits the individuals from seeking more positive options. There are also many forced into ‘begging’ by those of the underworld wo work for them. Tales of drugged or, in extreme cases, dead babies being carried by women to elicit greater sympathy and therefore more chances of gaining more rupees are rife. However, there are occasions when I have given. 2 examples may stimulate debate among those who read this article. My first case was on being approached by a young child, maybe 5 or 6 years old, carrying a balloon. I did my usual ‘thousand mile stare’ in a different direction to the child – basically ignoring her. Ten minutes later she was still there. not pestering me. Just looking at me. When I returned eye contact something in me clicked as she offered me the balloon for sale. I bought the balloon, which she handed me. I then returned the balloon to her as a gift – as many adults might give to a child. The morality of this? I have no idea, to be honest. Trying to think about this transaction I can only justify from my perspective. I bought the balloon from her, as I would purchase any commodity from any vendor. I then gifted the balloon as I would often gift something to a child. In this case, the vendor and the child were the same. The second case occurred last night. I had just arrived in Bandra, a particularly busy and thriving area of Mumbai. Especially on a Saturday evening. One exiting a particularly memorable auto-rikshaw journey and standing getting my bearings a young mother with 3 children approached me. The children were probable 4, 2 years and maybe 6 months old. Again, the ‘thousand mile stare’ from me. After a no more than 2 minutes, the mother and children moved away from me, about 3 metres. I turned and they were looking around and occasionally at me. I looked at the mother. She looked back and gave a slight smile, with an expression of looking really tired. Then I looked at the 4-year-old. She had the most amazing smile mixed with the slightly watering eyes often seen in marginalised children. I looked back at the mother, and she was stroking the head of her daughter. All three were obviously her own children, and she obviously cared deeply for all three. She then picked up the middle child, hugged him. Put him down and then tended the baby she was carrying in a pappoose. All the time not aware I was looking at her. The mother noticed her eldest child smiling and looking at me, and followed her gaze back to make eye contact with me. Held out her hand and said ‘Vada Pau’ – pronounced ‘Wader Pow’ in my form of English – and is known as the Mumbai Burger ( A fried mash of potato, onions and spice in a bread roll). and pointed at her children. Again I looked away. But after a few minutes I put my hand in my pocket, drew out a 20 Rupee note, walked over to them and handed the money over to the mother. Her eyes watered! Which shocked me. Normally, if money is given, the recipient quickly grabs, either asks for more, or moves on to ask others. No emotion. The mother put her hand on her chest in the manner of thanks used here. Here daughter looked at her mother, looked back at me but copied her mothers action of thanks. All three crossed the road to a street food vendor. The vendor on seeing them tried to discourage them from approaching. His first instinct, ‘more beggars!’ Then she held up the Rs 20/- note and he changed his behaviour abruptly. The purchase of several vada pau was made. The little group then sat down on the curb and consumed the food. I saw this from looking over parked cars. They were unaware of me observing them. 10 minutes later, they were still sitting on the roadside curb. The eldest daughter helping mother with the other 2 children. Their interaction was one of obvious love for each other. Next to them was a fruit seller. I walked over to them, gestured them to come with me the few metres to the fruit stall. Which they did and the mother giving me a look that was saying ‘what’s he doing?’ In my excruciatingly bad Hindi I tried to explain to buy fruit, and handed the mother another Rs 40/- in 2 Rs 20/- notes. I gestured to her to save one for tomorrow (‘Kul. Teek hai?) and the other I used and pointed to the fruit seller. She understood immediately. I looked at the fruit stall vendor and he understood to. I walked away as the mother was selecting some fruit. The daughter turned and gave the biggest smile and waved to me. I smiled and waved back. I headed to my destination, but after crossing the busy road turned again. They had sat on the curb and were sharing and eating the fruit just purchased. The daughter must have been watching me all the time as I walked away. Because as soon as I turned she gave another radiating smile and waved. The mother looked up, saw me and copied her daughter. My turn from my eyes to water. Since that interaction a few big questions have arisen in my thoughts: When does the description ‘beggar’ apply? When should the description be ‘someone asking for help?’.

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