Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Crazy Biscuit Lady

Giving to beggars is wrong - is what I've been brought up to believe. The money doesn't go to them anyway, it's a whole industry, encouraging it is wrong, so on and so forth.

It's not easy to remember that when there's a hungry-looking little kid peering in through the car window. And of late, it was getting even more difficult for me to ignore them. Even on the occasions that I did manage to act uninterested, and cause them to give up and walk away, I would find myself peering curiously at them from behind my sunglasses. Where is that kid's mom? What is that little girl going to do when she gets older? What is that tiny boy's name?

The ones that really get to me are the Entertainers. They usually work in pairs, with one person beating on a dholak, while the other one, usually a smaller kid with painted red cheeks and moustaches, does these strange acrobatics and contortions. I watch, out of the corner of my eye, as they turn somersaults and cartwheels and push themselves through a ring.

Last week, my heart went out to one little boy and I told myself 'It's not begging' and gave him a few rupees. He grinned and ran away.

The next day, at the same traffic light, there he was again. His face lit up when he saw me, and he came running up, and started swinging his head to set his cap going - what IS that thing called, the string on top of their caps that goes round and round - anyway, he started up again, and I gave in and handed over a little money.

The third day, I could see him coming - and vice versa. He spotted me from a distance and came running over and repeated his little performance with a disarming grin. I tried to resist but couldn't - but I clearly told him that 'kal se, kuchh paisa nahin milega'.

The fourth day, he tried his luck again, but I refused to give him anything. But as the car pulled away, I felt the urge to give him something - but had determined not to give him cash. I ended up handing over my breakfast, a couple of sandwiches I had grabbed to eat on the way - without missing a beat, he asked for 'pani' but I didn't have any.

And then it struck me - I had seen my friend Abhi carry cold water to hand over to the kids at a traffic light near his home - and Vijay had bought a large number of biscuits to hand out once. I figured I would go with the biscuits.

So the day before yesterday, enthusiastically, I bought over 30 packets and kept them ready to hand out to all the kids I encountered. And I managed to give away quite a few, but somehow couldn't connect with my little Entertainer friend. Of course, almost each other kid decided to quickly bring back a friend, or a sibling, in order to get another packet, which I obliged with.

In the evening yesterday, at the traffic light right outside my office, one more kid asked for a second packet, saying it was for his brother, vaguely gesturing towards some point in the distance. The doubt must have shown clearly on my face, and suddenly he ran away, clearly to fetch him. I called out to tell him it was okay, that he could have another packet anyway, but he was already halfway across the road - I cringed as an auto screeched to a halt a few inches from him, and he scrambled up the pavement and disappeared from sight. He came back into view shortly, carrying a dirty looking little bald baby. If it was possible for me to feel any worse, I did when I saw him wiping the baby's face hurriedly as he carried him over, obviously in an attempt to make him look slightly presentable to me.

The baby's eyes were dull - he looked about a year old, but I couldn't really tell. I quickly held out another packet of biscuits and he took it listlessly - the older boy quickly took it from him, grinned his gratitude once and then walked off without a backward glance. I caught a glimpse of the back of the baby's head - it was covered in sores.

This morning on the way to work, and also in the afternoon as I returned to work after lunch, I missed out on giving to the kids because the car couldn't stop for long enough at the lights - I realized I still hadn't been able to give a packet to the Entertainer, my little performing friend, and felt quite disappointed. Especially because he spotted me again and practically jumped for joy before a big bus blocked our view of each other. Another little girl saw me and started running but the people behind my car were honking like psychotic idiots and we couldn't stop. The little girl ran a long way behind us but we were too far ahead for her to catch up.

Maybe tomorrow, though.

I'm glad I'm doing this - even though I have a sneaking suspicion I should hand out loose biscuits or at least tear the packet open so that it gets eaten and not sold. I'm quite aware of and okay with the reputation I must be developing amongst the kids. 'Here comes the Crazy Biscuit Lady - What a Sucker' is probably the essence of the refrain that goes up when I come into view. And that's absolutely fine with me.

I am quite ashamed that I haven't done anything notably charitable apart from a few random attempts here and there - including sponsoring a little girl called Shrikala from the SOS children's village in Bangalore, years ago when Vijay and I lived there. It was one of the most rewarding experiences possible, but so short-lived - after we moved to Bombay, we were too busy to get in touch with her again, and I keep planning to send her a letter or some gifts, but haven't done so due to lack of ...nothing. Excuses, excuses.

Anybody else noticed how easy it is for people like us us to just ignore people who aren't as lucky as we are? To justify it either by using some deeper philosophy of 'past life karma' or an unnecessarily indignant, sputtering 'Well, why can't they just find work'? Maybe that little 8-year old can't actually find 'work' - and would be underage anyway.

So while they are there, right in front of us, peering hungrily through the car window, everyday- what can we do to help?

What do you do to help?

And what is your view on this whole 'giving to beggars is wrong' deal?


  1. Am always amused by your posts but this one was so heartfelt I had to stop and tell you that I will from now on hand out biscuits in place of money, and will renew efforts to do what I can for the kids . Thanks..

  2. I am equally confused as you are...on one hand there are kids on the street with an empty, hungry look in their eyes. On the other hand, I read about aayahs drugging kids and renting them out to beggars.

    Obviously there is a HUGE social issue here. And I feel that social organizations may be better at improving their lives with some financial help from us. But the biscuit thing is definitely better than money, because I have a feeling there are people on the other end waiting to abuse these kids and take away money from them.

  3. I have been doing the biscuit thing for a while... I think the money thing doesn't work coz there is someone waiting to take that money away from them. Atleast the biscuits can be eaten. I think you have a good idea there on tearing the packets just enough to avoid them being sold off to the paanwallah in exchange for some cash...

  4. That's a nice gesture on your part. I am quite confused about it as well specially after seeing that they don't really benefit from the money and some of them actually hire babies. So I think anything other than money should be good.

  5. I always gave food to the beggars, my younger cousin had taught me to do that. A very nice post, I wish there was something more we could do.

  6. BTW, your description of the baby sent shivers down my spine :(

  7. Nice. This post is also making me delurk even though I have been a loyal reader for over an year now!
    I once learnt from someone to always pack leftovers after a meal in the restaurant and hand it over to the beggars on the first light on the way back home. I have done that sometimes but not often enough to shrug of the nagging guilt.

  8. This post has made me proud of you, but also filled my heart with pain and sadness for the children. There are so many of them . Hundreds of them, everywhere..it just breaks ones heart to see small children holding sleeping / ailing infants on thier hips,and begging. Child labours are the ones that affect me the most. They dont beg, but work hard, beyond their capacity at times. Carrying a heavy sacks, breaking stones, cleaning in hotels etc, I always think, what he could be good at? Math? Science? Languages? He is supposedly future of India. I try to help as much as I can, but how much to help? there are so many who need help. Not just in the cities, but in villages and little towns,as well. I volunteer/ teach for an orphanage. And I feel so small in front of the orphan kids. I whine and crib for no reason whatsover.But these kids smile, inspite of losing everything in life. After every visit, I break down. I have all the right to ask GOD, what is the bloody reason for small children and helpless old people to suffer like that?
    What do I do to help - My friends and I, once in a month, give blankets/ clothes, rice, dal, sugar, soaps, toothpaste -brushes, vegetable oil, first aid kits, books, stationary and toys to the orphange.
    I too usually give biscuits or packets of bread to the beggars, if nothing,then chocolates.
    Sorry to hog so much of comment space, but you touched a spot in my heart.

  9. I have to admit though I do feel guilty all the time at not doing enough i don't do too much to help and your post hopefully will make me do something about it.....
    about helping beggars, I think money is a bad idea.. food however is the best we can do.. will try out the same.. wrote a post on a similar issue but with a completely different and may I add selfish point of view... have tried to write about how beggars cause immense discomfort mostly because we know we are not doing enough.Like you said it is easy for people like us to ignore people who are not as lucky.

  10. Nice post. Please don't stop giving them. Imagine us in their position. May be it may look to us that those kids/beggars are cheating,oversmarting us but imagine ourself in their place. They have to be persistent enough to get a small amount of money/food.
    Keep doing the good job.

  11. Lovely post Y.

    I have always believed giving money to beggars is wrong...but u know, as u mentioned, its difficult to remember when u actually see those faces. But the entertainers...I think that's work and can be suitably rewarded!

  12. have believed that giving money is wrong. mainly coz it may not help them. don't know what to do...
    i used to carry biscuits... couple of times, i've taken the kids out to lunch/dinner... made sure they ate...and paid the bill...
    but i cudn't ever give them money...

  13. :)

    biscuit lady indeed. earlier i used to give money. especially to really old beggars. somehow after a point hubby was very anti-begging and i neded up not giving much. plus bangalore doesnt see that many beggars...

    but yes, food is always better idea than money.



  14. i unashamedly give money, biscuits, and whenever i tidy out the cupboards, we roam around with the stuff in the backseat and give it awy to beggars. people tell me the clothes are sold, the food is sold. i dont care. i can do nothing else and until i can personally take them off the road and do more, this is the best i can do and i will keep doing it. its got worse since i had the kids. i just look at these dirty , hungry children and it breaks my heart..

    at one time they were doing this sad thing.. damn. let me go write a post on my own blog instead of this one...

  15. I used to work in sales so my days packed in a lot of travel, autos and traffic lights and I guess the decision I'd made early on was to avoid giving money but to indulge by giving stuff like ice-cream/chocolates/toffees-something that the kids on the streets might miss.
    Now that I dont stay in India, I help through nanhikali.org. Costs next to nothing, but makes a huge difference to a young girl's life.

  16. Confusing issue. Painful too. I do prefer organised charity, though.
    I'm the nasty person who looks through/away from beggars as I fear being mobbed if I give something to one. And this happened quite often. I've actually hardened my heart these last few years. And then I feel guilty.
    Confused, that's me.

  17. In that case, I'm a sucker too...especially pregnant beggars or the ones with babies...i feel a horrible twisting sensation in my gut when i see those poor creatures of a lesser God.. I keep giving them money...even if it doesn't go to feed them, it might save them from a beating...or so I think..

  18. Personally I think it is the toughest thing in the world to look away and be heartless not to give any alms to these traffic signal beggars.

    But look at it this way, if enough of us stop giving money and goodies to these people, they ll have no choice but to stop begging and look for something productive to do.

    I personally believe in charity to institutions like CRY and other NGOs which have a track record of actually having made a difference to Street Childrens' lives.

    But begging is something that I cannot and will not condone at any cost. According to me, people who encourage beggars are as much to blame as the people who put them on the streets in the first place.


  19. Im another crazy biscuit lady. I keep the small packs of Parle G with me for exactly that reason. The way i figure is at least that way they will eat something. Money, god know where it will go.

  20. It is cruel for a little child to even work. I would be concerned about them not getting an education. I once felt sorry for a kid serving food at a restaurant in Bangalore. Asked him if he wants to study, said yes but couldn't due to financial inability.

  21. I've seen them either dump the bottled water out or they have outright refused the food that I try to give them. Money seems to be all they want. I applaud you for helping them, but I've gotten discouraged watching them throw away what I've given them so I quit giving anything. I think they mostly want money to pass on to their adult bosses, which would then further the mafia-like begging racket.

    SAHM in Chennai

  22. Now, there's an idea. I'd think I'd take it on.

  23. Hello Y,

    I landed at this post through DesiPundit.

    I have tried several times to get myself to give some money to poor kids at signals - but just cant. I have posted something similar at: To Give or Not to Give. I cant pin-point the reason - but it just seems wrong.

    Maybe the thought that its unfair - I might give some money/food today, tmrw and for the next month - but what beyond that? Wont the kids start expecting to get food for free? Secondly, I can give alms to one kid/at one signal - but then somehow its unfair to kids at another signal! I know that if everyone does their bit, then it'l help a lot .. but given the massive scale of this problem in India, something more grass-roots level has to be done.

  24. Y, I do the leftovers thing. I carry leftovers from the previous nights dinner whenever I remember, rotis, rice and bread and sabji and distribute them. Id rather do that than give them money for Ive seen them take the cash and go right to the dealer for their next fix. It breaks my heart. But what can one do?
    Someday, I hope, when I have some time on my hands, I can work with a street school.

  25. It's heartening to see such an enthusiastic response to this post. I tend to agree with Chandini in that entertaining passing cars is actually work, but Chandni, the begging is also work to these kids - we don't know that the entertainors too don't have to hand their money over to the goondas, do we?

    Jairam has voiced just my sentiments on the issue. Having said that, what would I want to do? Or like to see done? The problem with most of us, me one of them, so I'm not pointing any fingers (!!!) is that we just talk and write about these things. And we wait for some NGO to do something we can contribute to...

    I'd love to see something like what got done with great success here in Beira. A young man, horrified at the life of the street kids began his own venture. He now has a soup kitchen, a football club and a little home-school kind of thing for them. None of this needed much money to start with. He hardly invested anything in it himself. Except his TIME! We used to see him on the streets, talking to the kids, telling them what he was offering. He also refuses large donations, saying he wants to keep the whole thing informal and unofficial.

    Suddenly, there were no more kids on the streets!

    Of course, we do not have the mafia element behind the kids here, so that'd have made it easier for them to leave begging... Also, the numbers were much fewer....

    So, you see, karmickids, there's hope yet.

  26. Hello Y,

    I linked to this article in my new post To Give or Not to Give - Part 2 (I'm not comfortable with using Blogger's "link to" feature - hence I let you know through comment)

  27. Hey Y

    Have been reading your blog over this last week.. came over here from MM's. Loved the blog and loved your stories on peanut.

    Just my two cents worth of thoughts on the begging issue - yes, we are told as children to not give money as it encourages them not to work. But it is very difficult when you see a kid or a really old lady. Because, obviously they can't work.
    And this biscuit giving thing is a good idea..because when we give money, a) we dont know if they will be able to use it for themselves b) even if they do, what do you get these days for 5 or 10 bucks?
    What's even worse is that in a place like Delhi in winters, all these children are on the roads without any proper clothing. I don't live in Delhi anymore, but last winter, my dad decided to buy some basic woolen clothing and keep in the car to give it to these kids.
    So, after all that rambling, point is that if we give money to a charity, they re gonna use it to help the kids.. as an alternative, you could just do it directly by giving biscuits, bread, bananas or even some leftovers from your dining out.

  28. Hi,

    I've been a secret reader of your blog from home/workplace. Haven't commented on any of the posts earlier as I'm not yet a mom!! But thought this post needs mention! Kudos!!! I'm planning to photocopy your idea!!!!!



Hi there. Go on, say it. Well? WELL?