Beggars in Delhi

May 20th, 2008

The baby was pressed up against the window glass of the car with his tiny brown face flattened against the surface maybe three inches from my eyes on the other side. He was wearing only a torn strip of a shirt at the top of his chest. On his bare torso below were tightly wrapped long thin fingers. The shock of seeing the dull eyes of the child forced my view down to those fingers, following them to the full hands, wrists, arms and then the startling face of the young woman pushing the baby towards me. Her eyes were bright through a few strands of black hair falling down her forehead, and she looked directly at me. Here we are, she seemed to say in those two seconds of connection. What are you going to do about it?

The car then began to roll again in the Delhi traffic, the baby was pulled back, the woman disappeared behind us. The driver sitting beside me, a wonderfully chatty older Indian woman who was one of our hosts, simply said, “You know to just ignore them, don’t you?”

Of course, I wordlessly responded, I already have two days of experience in this city ignoring the beggars. The night before I was startled during our brief evening shopping trip when on the sidewalk a small child suddenly grasped my hand from below, looking upwards. I pulled back in surprise and watched a security guard push the child off the sidewalk and back to the gutter with, I now noticed, the other beggars. Hank pointed out that a man had sent the little boy up to approach us, no doubt because he could quickly duck below the long sticks of the guards and at least get our attention.

In this group of people kept off the sidewalk at least intermittently was a one-armed man who had his single hand thrust out at the group during our entire visit. As we crossed streets he would quickly approach, staying to the side and out of our paths, but making sure we saw him. He said nothing. I watched him when he was looking elsewhere. I wanted to see that he really had a left arm kept hidden under his long, ripped shirt to increase the effect of distress. That would make me feel better to see deception, I thought. A quick flash of a withered stump, though, demonstrated that the arm really was gone. It then occurred to me that even if he was hiding an existing limb it would still be the same tragedy. There he was, here I am, and I avoided his eyes the whole time.

I’ve encountered many beggars before, of course, from cities as diverse as Los Angeles and Jerusalem. I have lots of practice at ignoring them. Here in Delhi, though, we have seen so many in such a short stay. Along with beggars are the families living in the streets just outside our bus window, often squatting listlessly in the heat, slowly fanning a sleeping child on a thin mat. And then there are the thousands of others on the sidewalks who will sell us fruit, brass trinkets, questionable jewelry. These souls surround us here by the millions. They do not define the “real India”, of course. There seems to be no defining feature of India other than incredible diversity in all things and a certain, as Grant Cornwell would say, “positionality”. They certainly captured our attention, though, as much as any academic lectures or monuments.

Do I feel guilt in the presence of these beggars for having all I can ever want in life? Do I feel that my “white skin privilege” has been a cudgel to beat these people over the generations? No. It is far more mixed than that. For every imperialist atrocity over the centuries there may be a life-saving innovation from the same culture. This is not to balance or excuse the past but only to recognize the complexity of causes, effects and contingency in history. I felt less guilty than profoundly sad. I will gain much from my diverse Indian experience, and this encounter will be woven into so many more, but this woman’s eyes will stay locked to mine.

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