(I originally wrote this post in January of 2009 when I was back from an unforgettable trip to India and my blog "A Rolling Crone" was just beginning. It proved to be one of the most widely read of my posts and also rather controversial, as I will explain in a note at the end. Since I'm presently in New York City working against a couple of writing deadlines I am (again) re-posting one of my earliest essays, hoping to reach a larger audience than I did in 2009. As always, I welcome comments from those who may be more informed about what's happening in India now, four years after I was there.)
Everyone who has not yet seen the film “Slumdog Millionaire” should do so at once. It’s an unrealistic fairy tale with an unlikely feel-good ending, but it graphically illustrates the lives of the countless millions of India’s children who live on the street with only one concern: “How will I manage to find enough to eat today so that I’ll be alive tomorrow?”
Everywhere you go in India you will find beggars. This is particularly true in the large cities like Delhi and Mumbai.
Mumbai is a city of 18 MILLION people and HALF of those people are homeless. That means that they live on the streets or in shacks made of tin or cardboard. A night-time drive from the airport in Delhi to Agra gave insights into these hovels and the families who consider home to be a piece of the median strip of the highway. It took an hour just to drive out of the city on a road that was jammed with rickshaws, camels, sacred cows and many, many beggars.
Frommer’s Guide to India in the “Mumbai” section deals with the problem of beggars: ”Families of beggars will twist and weave their way around the cars at traffic lights, hopping and even crawling to your window with displays of open wounds, diseased sores, crushed limbs, and starving babies, their hollow eyes imploring you for a few life-saving rupees…. In the worst of these tales of horror, children are maimed to up the ante by making them appear more pathetic. The choice is stark: Either lower the window and risk having a sea of unwelcome faces descend on you, or stare ahead and ignore them. To salve your conscience tip generously those who have made it onto the first rung of employment”
In India you quickly steel yourself to the crowds of children who are grabbing your arm, knocking on the window of your car, thrusting flowers into your pockets, repeating endlessly the only words of English they know: “Hello Madame, food, hungry, money, please, eat…”
If you give any of them money or even move toward your pocket or purse, their number suddenly increases tenfold and you cannot move for all the hands clutching at you.
In Mumbai, just outside our hotel, when we walked onto the shopping street of Colava Causeway, lined with stores on the right and street sellers’ booths on the left, all shouting their wares, there were two families of children who were particularly aggressive, following us for blocks, especially a girl of about 11 who kept thrusting flowers onto me anywhere they would stick, and her little brother who seemed to have no adult watching him as he skittered in front of us. I was so annoyed by them constantly clutching at me, but then one night, returning home about 11:30, I saw the family sound asleep on the sidewalk, the children curled into the prone body of their mother, and I felt guilt-stricken. The next day, before I left, I managed to give the girl a hundred rupees without anyone else noticing, and instead of unleashing a crowd on me, she grabbed it, grinned and ran. (It was worth only about $2.00 but that was probably a good day’s income to her.)
The beautiful and sad little girl from Jodhpur in the photo above, who was dressed and painted to look like a Hindu goddess, has a good gimmick, because the Hindu religion emphasizes giving money and food to holy persons as well as to sacred cows. On every street you can see poor Indians putting necklaces of flowers on the ubiquitous cows and feeding them. They also share their food with the bearded sadhus (holy men) dressed only in saffron loin cloths. These holy men live entirely on charity, renouncing all their worldly goods. Feeding them, like feeding the cows, is good karma for the Indians.
The little girls along the Ganges who sell small candles nestled in leaf-bowls are not strictly beggars – they’re actually young entrepreneurs, because everyone who comes to the Ganges wants to sail these candles into the river as an offering (as we did.) At night the boys in their rowboats row the pilgrims and tourists into large log-jams of boats gathered to watch the priests do their twilight fire worshipping on shore and the children selling floral chains, candles and pots of tea scramble agilely from one boat to another.
The children in India who manage to learn decent English are miles ahead of the ones who don’t—because they can move themselves and their families out of poverty and a life on the streets. All the tourists we saw – Japanese, Russian, Italian, Australian – use English as the lingua franca.
We hired Mark, a young man about 18—when we encountered him in Varanasi in a craft store that caters to tourists. His business card said he drove a rowboat and because his English was good, we booked him (at the usual rate of 150 rupees per person per hour) for a dawn trip down the Ganges the next morning.
As Mark paddled through the fog and darkness while the river woke up and the faithful began to bathe themselves and their cattle and their laundry, I asked him if the little girls who sold the candles went to school. He said all but one of them did – her parents couldn’t afford the 300 rupees ($6.00) per month that school cost. He also said that he personally was paying for one child to go to school. I learned that Mark was supporting his entire family of two parents and seven children with his three jobs (rowboat guide, craft store salesman and factory worker.) His father, formerly a carpenter, had TB. His mother had to stay home and care for his six younger siblings.
The biggest surprise was that Mark told us he, himself, despite his impressive business cards, could not read or write. “But how did you learn such good English?” we asked.
“From tourists in the store” he replied. If Mark had the leisure to go to school and become literate, he would probably become the Donald Trump of Varanasi.
I would like to find a philanthropy through which I could sponsor one or two children in India at six dollars a month to attend school rather than begging in the streets. (I already sponsor children through Plan but that goes to the community in Nepal not to the children themselves.) I’ve been googling, trying to find such a philanthropy with access to Indian children, but without any luck so far, so if you have any suggestions, write me at email@example.com.
It’s really appalling that a country like India, which is now enjoying a huge boom in industry and technical know-how; a country that has a very wealthy class evident in cities like Mumbai and Delhi, cannot manage to provide free schooling for the millions of Indian children who live on the streets.
One reader of the original blog post has repeatedly posted the same criticism of my article, that says in part: "england simply sucked on indias blood no literacy nothing all other factors are repurcussions to the first add to it politics and corruption and u get child beggary whatever this might be. one very morally inhumane thing is tourist taking pictures of indian beggars to make a mockery . if u can help .help ...if u cant atleast dont spread hopelessness".
In my defense, I'd like to tell him --(somehow I suspect it's a "him")-- that three years ago, when two friends of mine went to Varanasi, I sent with them multiple copies of the "Ganges girls" photos above to give to the girls along with money, because I suspected the girls owned no photos of themselves. Whenever I'm photographing children in poor countries, I don't do it to mock them, I do it to celebrate their spunk and beauty--and I try to make sure that they receive copies of the photos. In every case, as with the Ganges girls, the photographs were received with great joy.)