Lives of Others - The Beggar-Toddler

A hot summer noon. Sometime in the year 2008. A crowded traffic junction in a suburb in Mumbai. 'Crowded' as defined by Bombay peak hour standards. Me in an autorickshaw - a vehicle that is semi-open.  The driver waiting for the lights to turn green which takes about 8 minutes. The 3-seater sofa was just right to hold me, my bag of work things and my big purse in which I carry not only money, keys and credit cards but also a mini-household ....never know what I might need where...All traffic lights in Bombay are micro retail hubs. Men, women and children go from vehicle to vehicle peddling their wares such as mineral water, peanuts, pirated copies of bestselling books, umbrellas, toys, strawberries, figs and feather dusters. So waiting in an auto-rickshaw or car at a traffic light is always an entertaining experience with the constant stream of street sellers who approach the passengers to try their charms and sales skills. Most of these sales people are recent immigrants from villages and although most car-owners shun them, insult them and treat them like fleas, I have found them to be interesting individuals with a great sense of life and living. But I am digressing! Alongside these sellers - there is also a parallel stream of beggars. Of all ages. The beggar industry in Bombay is probably a financial force by itself - extremely organised, extremely well run, with high entry barriers for new organised players and also high exit barriers for the individuals at the bottom of the food pyramid in that industry. 'Slumdog Millionaire' provides a good peep into this industry. Beggars here play on your emotions of 'guilt' appeal to the beggee's heart and pity. They may have a physical handicap which is well displayed, or may have the handicap of age or may be poor young women with  a newborn. Feeling pity and putting in selfless effort to help others is always a good thing. And these beggars provide the opportunity at your door step, to earn good karma, for those who are in the habit of putting off everything postpone-able to an elusive tomorrow. But in the recent times, there have been stories that these beggars are not helpless and that there are various schemes in place to generate an income through begging - such as renting a baby for Rs.30 for a day - so that a young girl renting it can pretend to be the mother and extract some donations through this fake display of her helplessness and vulnerability. There are many other horror stories that I have personally encountered but there is nothing I could have done but watch. And so the middle class and the rich vacillate between feelings of pity and feelings of scepticism, until both these sentiments combine to form numb de-sensitising blinkers which render these beggars invisible. So on this hot afternoon, as I at in the rick and waited for the lights to turn green, a little boy beggar approached the rickshaw from the open door on the right of the 3-seater bench that I sat on. Torn clothes. Running nose. Dirty scruffy hair. Between 3 and 4 years old. I waved him away. I had many things on my mind and at that moment I did not have the energy to engage in this forced interaction. He stood where he was, lazily perching his arms on the seat of the rickshaw and he watched me with as much interest as I watched him. The eye contact drew me in and I began to speak to him - he was just a little toddler and some maternal thoughts half-arose in my head as I spoke. He didn't respond to any of the words I said, so I concluded that he did not know the local language or maybe any language at all ....he hadn't been taught to speak yet! He continued to extend his hand in the begging gesture - completely ignoring all my words and my body language that said I would not be giving him anything.  After awhile, in order to indicate decisively and clearly that his effort of begging from me was not going to succeedl, I began ignoring him. I  began looking in the other direction and pretended to be engrossed in watching some shop in the distance. Yet I could see him standing there with the corner of my eye. And that's when I got a shock! This little toddler reached out in one speedy swoop and tried to snatch my purse. Had my grandma not taught me to be suspicious of everyone on the road and be alert at all times, I would probably not have had that the strap of that bag wound around my wrist and would have lost it to the little beggar-thief-toddler! I pulled the bag close to me and yelled at the toddler as he ran off empty-handed to become an indiscernible drop in the ocean of traffic. My bag was saved. But my psyche was not. The rest of the way, I couldn't think of anything other than this incident. How did this come to be? How did a toddler who probably hadn't developed his speech skills yet, know to snatch bags? What kind of life has it become, where adults empower a virgin mind  with the skills of the act of theft instead of skills of literacy? Did he even know it was wrong ? Or the difference between right and wrong? Will he ever be taught morals? Are they even relevant in a world of people struggling to survive ? Who are these people teaching a human child to be an obedient monkey-thief? (yes there are trained monkey thieves). And what are their compulsions that led them to this point where they molded a child's mind in this way? What if a whole large group of children is raised in this way, with no cognition of right & wrong  - would that society be sustainable? Would jungle laws of life not teach them? Would not the same moralities evolve and rise again, even if a deliberate effort is made to train children to be thieves? If the choice is between "not eating" and "stealing" - the choice for a starved person is obvious. So when starvation is perpetual isn't morality a superfluous unnecessary barrier that comes in the way of survival? I have no answers. Only questions that led to more questions - and all of them led to quicksand. And is there any validity to all these judgemental questions I ask sitting here on the 17th floor of my  secure apartment in the safest country in the world, about people who were born with a circumstance that I might - only with the greatest of  effort  - comprehend slightly  but never ever be forced to live? Who am I to ask any of this? They as individuals are as valid as I am. Their decisions for their own lives as valid as mine are for me. And so, the moral choices made by the mother of my little beggar thief toddler  are probably based on some logic that works optimally in their circumstance. And they are probably just as justified within their context as my choices are within my context. In these beggar communities, girls survive through the one asset that they are  born with. Is that wrong? The babies born to such mothers are not celebrated births. But a baby becomes an earning member of the household pre-natally - even as a bump seen on the young beggar mother. Once born, in their drugged state, they are carried around as rented value adding-props  ...helping older beggars to survive. And when these babies grow older, they are molded anyway their handlers find profitable. Is this the child's fault? They grow up, with the same sentiments of ambition - ambition to be at the top in the only world they know and understand ....and grow up to join the hierarchy of the begging industry....i.e. IF they grow up .....is this wrong ? More importantly did they EVER have an alternative? And so The Beggar-Thief-Toddler will continue to be re-born. Again and again and again. How does this get solved? I have NO idea!! But I do all I can to be kind to each of these individuals who definitely face much harsher lives than I have  ever will. jm August 2011


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