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?