Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Small change

When the traffic lights turn red, the beggars come calling, tapping or scratching at the window of the car. More often than not, the women carry a baby, swaddled in tired rags, or tote a small barelegged child on one hip. When the child’s old enough to walk, he begs for himself. They tap, and point, first at you, then themselves. The signs they use are unmistakeable: food, and money. They’re insistent, pressing their case on one side of the car, then the other, assessing, scratching. The open-sided tuk-tuks are more vulnerable, their passengers often harangued until the lights turn back to green. When their customers move on, the beggars drift back to the middle of the road, and wait for the traffic to stop again. They’ve got all day.
In more than three weeks, I see not a single rupee exchange hands. Monu says this is normal, people don’t give to street beggars. Other beggars, lining the way to the temple, have proper pitches, and fare better, with clients on their way to worship. Meanwhile, at the traffic lights, the women bring up their babies in carbon monoxide fumes, in the full glare of the midday sun. I would do nothing to perpetuate this system, but it goes against the grain, turning my face away.
Each time the car stops, we are besieged by salesmen, too, toting their wares. We’re offered squares of orange cloth for polishing the car, tiny lemons and chillies strung like pendants, toy helicopters and cars, crayoning books, Indian flags made of plastic or paper, punnets of strawberries, bags of white grapes, and even, on a Sunday, strings of bright orange flowerheads. A man, with an armful of shrink-wrapped novels, peers into the car, sees our white faces, and clicks his fingers, summoning the child-beggars from further down the line. The smaller one’s possibly three years old, already adept at miming his hunger and despair.
Two very pretty, dark-skinned girls, in acid-bright saris, clap their hands, laughing, and sing little snatches of song to each other, as they work the line of stationary traffic. They look so carefree and happy, I don’t quite understand that they’re beggars, at first. It’s as if they’re doing it for a dare, laughing at themselves, for being in such a situation. I find more pathos in them, than in the tiny children with big eyes and dusty feet.
The only angry beggar we see has a growth on the side of his neck, half the size of his head. He gesticulates aggressively, and hits the car refusing him, before moving on, shouting. It’s the only time I feel threatened.
Money’s hard-won, in Mumbai. Tiny lock-up shops line the streets in their thousands, selling washers, or inner-tubes, or cane chairs, or motor-cycle helmets. Everything looks third-hand, and slightly battered. Old stock, unsaleable even by Mumbai standards, they sling on the roof, a retail graveyard. The whole city’s a permanent garage sale. I never see anyone actually buying anything, but I’m told business goes on. The stallholders work fourteen or sixteen hours a day, hoping to take two or three hundred rupees. Less than four pounds. Enough to keep them off the streets, just about.
Received wisdom says don’t. Don’t give to the street-beggars. It’s very hard, when they’re pulling at your pockets. If you give to a child, your money’s likely to be taken from him by an overseeing adult. Often adults who beg don’t get to keep what they’re given for their own. Giving to help ironically serves to keep them on the streets. But, don’t ignore them, either. If you contribute to an organised charity working in Mumbai, there’s some hope of doing a little permanent good. And keep your pockets full of sweets, for the little ones.