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 are wedged in-between their hips and the dull tangerine sky. It’s an amphitheater of despair. A showcasing of les misérables. I guess, we are all miserable. But if you are reading this, you must have it better than them.
Because it boils down to simple and cruel economics. Money matters. Some have enough of it. And they don’t know what to do with it. The rest don’t. So, they accumulate until the day they die.
Then, there are the sparrow people.
Panhandlers remind me of creatures that once roamed free in my city – the house sparrows. Now, these birds stand before us and ask us to share a few morsels. It seems so unfair that they need our assistance to eat a proper meal. Because we chased them away from their food sources. We consumed what was meant to be shared.
Through our greed and apathy, we lessen any chance a panhandler may have of leading a dignified life too. It’s not as though we tweak our curled up whiskers and orchestrate scummy plots to make their lives miserable. We aren’t bad people. We can’t be blamed for the misery. But our indifference does take its toll.
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.
When I see them in traffic signals, I turn my head away and pretend to be focused on doing something else. I don’t want to think about socio-economic disparities. I have bills to pay. Books to read. Stupid existential problems to deal with. But if it’s an elderly person, I dole out some cash. It’s how I eschew the guilt of being an entitled and middle-class dolt living in independent India.
If a child approaches my vehicle, 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, a friend of mine shot a documentary – On The Streets – about poverty in Chennai. He 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 couldn’t 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 haven’t thought much about the protagonists I had seen it the documentary. And I just realized something today. Two years ago, I was sitting down on the couch and crying my eyes out while watching it. I was overwhelmed that people living so close to me had so much sadness in their lives.
Today, I don’t even remember their faces.
Was Oscar Wilde right all along? Lousy art, art thou quite useless?
under the amber sun,
and peel the skin
off the seeds
in nearby fields.
sleep now as
(Photography: Chennai & Kodaikanal)