Friends, semicolons, countrymen, lend me your sparrows

I get stuck in traffic while going to the office every day. During this time, young women in rags approach my vehicle to beg for alms. Emaciated babies wedged in-between their hips and the dull tangerine sky. It is an amphitheater of despair. A showcasing of les misérables. Well, we are all miserable. But if you are reading this, you probably have it better than them. I know that I do.

Because it boils down to simple and cruel economics. Money matters. Some have so much of it that they do not know what to do with it. Many others cannot seem to put their fingers on how much would be enough, so they work to earn until the day they are bed-ridden and dying; staring at the ceiling, listening to the cold and mechanical buzz of the air-conditioner, and wondering if they will ever see a slideshow on the shit they have accumulated, as an acoustic guitar plays in the background.

Then, there are the sparrow people.

House Sparrow (male)

Also known as panhandlers, they remind me of creatures that once roamed free in my city – the house sparrows. Now, these small brown-colored birds have to beg us just for a few morsels. It seems so unfair that they need our assistance to eat a proper meal. Because we had chased them away from their food sources. We had fully consumed what was meant to be shared.

Through our greed and apathy, we also lessen any chance a human panhandler may have of leading a dignified life. It is not as though we tweak our curled up whiskers and orchestrate scummy plots to screw them over. We are not movie villains. We cannot be blamed for the misery. But our indifference takes a heavy toll. Our ignorance of it makes things worse. And we have turned them into semicolons; unsure of their place in the discourses we have.

In India, begging is an organized business run by ruthless entrepreneurs. Journalists and filmmakers have painted grim pictures of it. In many cases, children are abducted and made to live in deplorable conditions. They are drugged and sexually violated. Everyone is aware of it. From police officers and lawyers to politicians and the Prime Minister.

Everybody knows. Yet nobody cares enough to make a substantial fuss about it. Not even as much when someone they can relate to is robbed, raped and/or killed.

Kodambakam, Chennai

When I see them in traffic signals, I turn my head away and pretend to be focused on doing something else. I do not want to think about socio-economic disparities. I have bills to pay. Books to collect and abandon. Stupid existential problems to deal with. But I pay attention if it happens to be an elderly person. I dole out some cash. It is how I eschew the guilt of being an entitled and middle-class dolt living in independent India.

If a child approaches my vehicle, and he/she is loud enough to catch my attention – the melancholy lasts longer. Because every time I see one, I am reminded of my niece. It ends up affecting me for at least a full ten minutes. Then, I leave – with neither a kind eye nor a currency note. I reach my workplace and shift my focus to a cup of coffee. A list of emails. Meetings. Life moves on.

In 2012, my friend – Raj – shot a documentary called On The Streets. It was about poverty and homelessness in our city. He had never released it because he felt that he would be taking advantage of someone’s situation, without adding value to it. While it was a gut-wrenching and beautiful piece of cinema, he could not bring himself to showcase it in his portfolio.

I had spoken to him often about changing his mind. After a while, he agreed to it. But I saw it in his eyes that he wasn’t at peace with the decision. We never went through with it because he killed himself a few months later.

Since then, I have not thought much about the characters I had seen it the documentary. But when I had sat down on the couch to watch it a few years before, I cried my eyes out. I was overwhelmed by the amount of fear and sadness in their lives.

Today, I do not even remember their faces.

Perhaps, Raj had gotten it right; that art is quite useless in the face of human misery. And so is the mere gesture of handing out coins and currency notes to make sense of the state of poverty in whichever city you are from.

House Sparrow (male)

We’ll bury
your sorrow
under the amber sun,
and peel the skin
off the seeds
in nearby fields.

Rest now,
sparrow people,
sleep now as
we mourn,
until the
weather update,
thee.

(Photography: Chennai & Kodaikanal)

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28 comments

  1. Terrible. I live in an American city where people beg at every intersection. We used to give them all money, having decided that we didn’t have to know what they did with it. But since we read the local stories about people with homes making $300 a day doing this while my husband makes a third of that working at the age of 72, we stopped. How can we decide? It torments me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I understand, Jane. I have heard about panhandlers making a proper business out of it in your country. And it does suck that things are the way they are, and the extent to which matters are beyond our control.

      Like

  2. A brilliant title hiding a very disturbing post.

    ” He never released it because he felt that he would be taking advantage of someone’s situation,” Good man, so sorry he had to let himself go – we could do with more of his kind alive.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you Adi!

      It wasn’t my intention to make people feel guilty about the lives they have. Perhaps, I feel guilty too. It’s just that I am perplexed why we still don’t care enough to do something about so many issues.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. That’s what I took from your post! I was originally drawn by the very witty title, which I love. I don’t feel you were trying to make anyone feel guilty – just reporting what you saw and what you feel.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. It is interesting to see we have similar perspectives on a similar issue from opposite sides of the world….I wonder all the time, ‘how can we fix this?’ but I have no answers, either. Instead of giving money to those on the streets, I donate to shelters where I know what I donate is going to help someone who needs it.
    Its things like this, though, that make me think humans are all selfish, lazy and unconsciousness about how their actions affect everyone and everything around them. It disgusts and disappoints me and sometimes I end up overcome with the negativity even though I know not everyone falls under my negative outlook but its hard to pull myself out of sometimes.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gosh, Hazel, it’s so relatable that my head hurts. But in a nice way, you know. I go through a similar spin cycle of emotional events. In the end – negativity.

      Pshhh we’ll be okay. We may not make a song about it but meh, we’ll be okay, dear friend.

      Like

  4. Do you ever wonder what all the money spent on the Olympics could do for children and families living in poverty? I can’t watch the Olympics. The whole business of the Olympics revolts me and makes me angry for all the reasons you relate in this post. If we really cared we wouldn’t have these bread and circuses.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree, Susanne. It’s one of the reasons why I don’t it either. Also, I am not fond of competitive activities.

      Another tragedy, as far as I know, is that the nice Indian girl who won the medal will be forgotten in a few weeks. It won’t open up opportunities for women born into poverty in this country. And non-cricketing sporting folks will continue to be treated like second class citizens.

      Of course, I am jaded. So, I may just have survivor’s guilt.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Great post, written from the heart as usual. I do not dole out cash to children, but do keep a pack of cookies to give them now and then, the commercially available packed and sealed ones.

    As Hazel suggested, a small part of the solution would be to give to agencies and organizations that are involved with rehabilitation of the needy. There are quite a few doing amazing work in India, empowering in areas of health, education and livelihood.
    You can give them your time or make a donation.

    The disparity is discomforting and probably wont diminish in our lifetime, we need to seek alternate solutions to address it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you.

      Yes, we need to come up with alternate solutions. However localized as they may be – it will matter. Even though little strokes may not fell great oaks, it’s a much-needed start.

      Also, I am a hardwired cynic, Vivaran. Every time I think of NGOs, I can only picture internal newsletters, pandering to CSR shindigs, and a lack of humanity while catering to it. But you are right, some are doing amazing work.

      I am definitely calling out myself, for not having taken the efforts to contribute in a sustainable way.

      Like

    1. Thank you, Madhavi. Perhaps, existential despair is the reason why we haven’t gone crazy yet and ironically, why we don’t help each other to the extent we can too.

      Thanks for the kind words again.

      Like

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