Giving Away 2 Dollars

22 February 2013

Karnataka to Kerala

Everyone knows there are many poor people everywhere in India, so many of them beg for money. The most common is the old man or woman wearing cloth. One hand outstretched with a couple of rupees in their palm, they will moan a little or (more commonly) be silent and put the other hand up to their mouth as a gesture for eating.

I’ve seen children with torn dusty clothes and I wonder why their hair is going grey. They ask for money and you say no, so they ask for some water from your bottle, or for chocolate, or push their little key rings up to your face to try again to make a sale for under 20 cents.

Just as common are men (always men) with strange deformations and mutilations. There was a man whose legs seemed thinner than bone, and he pushed himself around on a little sheet of wood with wheels on the bottom through the manic Mumbai rush hour in Victoria Station. There was a man in Delhi who made noises like a broken robot, an lurched around on all fours like an alien. The children would sometimes chase him or be chased by the alien man, but it’s impossible to know how jovial this was. Sometimes the leg bones will look snapped and be shooting off in opposite directions. How do they ever move from that path? Sometimes there will be no arms or legs at all: crude amputation the only measure against infection spreading from perhaps just a little cut.

Always their skin is dark and cracked like leather that’s been used for ten too many years out in the sun.

What are you supposed to do? You can’t give to everybody, so how do you choose? Do you give at all?

Look to the locals for answers, perhaps. Of the thousands of Indians I’ve seen, they always look the other way, either flicking their hand as if they were throwing away a plastic wrapper, or just act like there’s nothing there. However, they do give every so often; my rough guess is that about 1 in 100 times an Indian will give a couple of coins to an old man (never woman), and marginally more often to the deformed man if he was able to crawl up to the giver. But they still look away dispassionately even when giving.

I don’t have any answers. Waiting at Margao train station today for almost 9 hours only complicated things.

Like many times before, an old man came slowly up straight to the westerner and asked for money for food silently. Dried spicy snack mix was right there in my hand, so I offered him the bag. He shook his head and smiled. If he wants food, why doesn’t he take this? I revolved my hand in the Indian gesture of confusion, and offered the bag to him again. He shook his head but there was now no smile. I understood all too well then, but retried unsuccessfully before going back to my book.

The sun set and I was still at the train station. People came and went: ‘Hello, what is your good name?’; ‘Where are you?’. The one who stuck around was Edward, who spoke very good English and was well educated after studying in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. He was a moderately strong Christian (explains the name), and loved to philosophise. We had interesting discussions about right and wrong, pure and impure, and when there was obviously no answer he would just say it was god. Two nights ago he came to Goa by himself for a quick two day holiday, but he was mugged and beaten, with all his money stolen on the first night.

‘Do you have a job?’

He ate as we spoke about Michael Jackson. Edward had a strange belief that Jackson changed his skin colour ‘for the people. So there would be no more discrimination’.

Inevitably he asked me for me to buy his train ticket for him to Hubli. It would cost 100rs., less than $2. Here was that difficult situation again. If I buy this ticket, then what about all those other people before him?

‘No. Sorry. I can’t.’

He changed the topic after that and we spoke more about everything and anything. He looked out to the passing trains when he said he lost his watch when he was drunk. Indians love to speak about girls to westerners but I didn’t really have a chance to say anything other than that neither men nor women are perfect before he told me an important story.

‘Different minds, men and women. I came home from work and I was very tired. The woman didn’t respect me, so I beat her. I was, uh, suffering, you know? So I beating her.’

I’m happy I didn’t buy this guy a train ticket. I sat on the ground with my back against the palm tree. I couldn’t take my hand away from my forehead. There was a nation-wide union strike so the train rolled out from Margao station about 4 hours late.