A Stay in India (5):  The Poor You Have Always With You

The beggar I encounter for the first time, in Delhi, is a woman with a small child in her arms. I had been told to look out for this most common guise of a "professional" beggar (a mother with a needy child). It is said that begging is often organized as a business; that "rent a baby" arrangements are prevalent, in which women will work the streets with a child that is not hers to enhance her emotional pulling power; that giving anything only serves to perpetuate the system.

And so I am given my first challenge in detachment from spontaneous reactions of pity. Should I ignore everyone I meet on the street, no matter the apparent need? Although this seems like the simplest attitude to strike, it makes me feel there is a callus on my spirit, and it takes more energy than I expected. Should I spend the time to interact for a moment when people approach, to try somehow to discriminate the real from the contrived? This requires even more effort, and it is not what I came here to do. I fall into the middle ground, making sure I always have coins and small bills to use if the time is right.

Walking toward the Hanuman temple in Connaught Place, we pass through a gauntlet of men pressing us with chess sets and backgammon sets and toys. At the temple grounds, a young girl comes begging and is particularly insistent. When temple personnel emerge to offer food to the needy, and a bread line forms, people scramble from every direction to get in line. But this little girl is in absolutely no hurry to join them. Finally she gives up on me, coolly saunters over to the line, and deftly insinuates herself at the front, meeting only limp rebukes — a smooth and confident operator.

In the end, I give the most to one who asks for nothing. Near the river in Haridwar, I come across a man sitting in front of a large sheet of paper. He has no arms, and he is painting a picture of Ganesh with his feet. Fully engaged, he pays attention neither to me nor to the rupees I place in the metal bowl by his side.

Back in Delhi in our taxi, we are harangued, as usual, at every stoplight by hawkers and beggars. A perky girl of about 14, with only one arm, the other sleeve of her punjabi hanging empty, taps boldly at the window of our car. When she gets no response, she sticks out her tongue and makes faces at us, but with a mischievous glint in her eye. We try to hide our amusement, and continue to pretend to ignore her. When the light turns green, she reaches out with her 'missing' hand from the bottom of her dress and waves goodbye.