We expected to be encounter people begging on this trip. However at times it can be overwhelming and much more sad then we had expected. One of the toughest things to deal with, is that we’re getting used to it. This is a way of life for many people here and unfortunately it will not change any time soon. We receive many requests for money or other things from women, children, the elderly, and people with disabilities.
It is very common to see young women or girls begging while carrying around their children or younger siblings as a kind of sympathy prop. In some cases the child being carried seems far too large for the child doing the carrying. The young ones seem completely passive, enduring the discomfort and heat without complaint.
Blind people shuffle through the streets or the trains seeking donations, often with a child as a guide. Sometimes they shuffle together as a group, holding onto each other as they walk through traffic-clogged streets; literally the blind leading the blind, which seems very dangerous. To attract attention, they sing loudly with strained and cracking voices, doing what is necessary to be heard over the din.
Many children have a common script to ask first for money, then a school pen, followed by chocolate, or perhaps foreign coins. In several cases these children are clearly not poor, like those who ride up on their bikes or are traveling with their families, and are just trying to get what they can from foreigners.
Several times we’ve seen young boys crawling through the trains on their hands and knees, sweeping the floor literally with the shirts off their backs. After brushing the dirt from beneath your feet, they sit there staring up into your eyes, sometimes touching your leg gently.
One of the saddest cases we encountered was a beautiful young girl in Rajasthan wearing a traditional red dress that was old and worn. She was begging at the street side counter of a liquor shop, which in India tend to be far worse places than you would think. She had a monkey attached to a chain around her waist. She would hoist the monkey up by the chain around his neck, and the monkey would reach up to grab the chain to prevent being choked. Both ends of the chain were very sad to us, and the combination was heart-breaking. What was alarming was that the monkey end of the chain was more disturbing for us. Shouldn’t we have been more concerned about the little girl?
It is quite common after dark to see people sleeping on the streets. Rickshaw drivers and street vendors often sleep in impossibly cramped positions in or on their rickshaws or stalls because they have no home. Families of women and their young children sleep together huddled in groups on the pavement. What is very hard to see are elderly people sleeping on the streets — a frail old man or woman sleeping on the hard ground with no padding, all alone, and without protection.
Another painful situation is the few times when we’ve had elderly people get down on their knees to beg, often bending forward and extending their arms to touch their forehead to the ground, and sometimes touching Patrick’s feet. To have an old woman do this to you is overwhelming. For her to be walking by, see you there, set down her load, and proceed to prostrate herself in front of you is crushing. Interesting, we’ve only ever seen this done by old people to a foreigner; they don’t appear to do it to other Indians. Is this strictly a practical matter of who is most likely to contribute (because Westerners are wealthy), or is it a holdover from the life of subservience that these older people experienced growing up under colonialism?
A stranger case is that of Indian transvestites. There are a small percentage of men here, presumably homosexual, who dress in woman’s clothes and act like women. They often solicit donations on the trains, sometimes after performing a song in a high falsetto. What’s unusual is that they are very brazen and seem to intimidate the Indian men into donating so they will leave them alone. It seems to be a case of utilizing homophobia to their advantage. We’ve heard that some Indians believe these people have magical powers and if they don’t contribute, may be cursed. They don’t tend to approach tourists, who presumably don’t respond the same way to their advances.
We have an issue of poverty and homelessness in Canada, and we have people begging on the streets of Vancouver. Based on the number of people begging in India, their ages, and their apparent condition, the need is far greater here.