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my perfect beggar
By Dennis Batchelder 21 may 2005

I give money to beggars. Not to the overly aggressive ones or the well fed ones in rich cities, but only to the desparate, dirty ones in out of the way foreign places. Beggars who passively hold out their hands and are grateful when you give anything at all.

My perfect beggars are the ones ignored by other givers. The little old lady sitting in the corner can suck my wallet dry faster than a crowd of young men. Those guys usually leave empty handed, cursing me, because I only want to give to beggars who make me feel generous and not threatened.

Part of why I give is so I can think that I'm making a difference. Also because I want to expunge the guilty feeling that I get when I realize that the things in my life that bother me (like trying to lose weight, or not receiving a hotel wake up call, or getting a scratchy phone service when calling back home) are so trivial when I compare them to the problems that somebody in rags, sitting on the side of the road, brushing the flies off the open sores on their legs, is facing. So I give, and the guilt is expunged, and I feel better.

Well, that's the goal, but many times somebody with me starts telling a story of a beggar they heard about who refused to work when asked, or reminding me of a beggar who picked up his rags and drove away in his Mercedes (Irina and I saw that at the Notre Dame in France), or one whose cell phone rang while sitting there and had to sheepishly smile and answer it (we saw that in Copenhagen), or one they saw buying beer with the money they gave. And they start telling me reasons why they don't give money. Then all my good feelings evaporate, and I feel like I've been taken advantage of. When I'm travelling with people like this, I am surreptitious in my giving. I fold the note so nobody knows how big it is. I try to give it when nobody is looking. And I lie about how much I give. I don't want to make others feel guilty that I gave when they didn't.

India's full of my kind of perfect beggars. We found many of them on our trip from Hyderabad to Sri Sailam last Saturday. Sri Sailam is 5 hours northwest of Hyderabad, and Alok, Kasi, Amit, Arunabh, and Swarup brought me there to visit a temple of Lord Shiva (it contains one of 11 Shivlings - likenesses of Lord Shiva which miraculously and spontaneously sprang from the earth). Many Hindu pilgrims travel there, shave their heads, and pray and look upon the Shivling. The lines for these pilgrims are very long - they wait many hours in the heat.

At one point on the drive to Sri Sailam, we stopped at a toll crossing (a guy with a stick across the road). When our driver Prashanth went over to pay him, a trio of beggars came to the car. One lady was shaking like she had a bad case of Parkinson's disease. They put their heads up to the car window and peered in at us, making hand to mouth motions.

By this point in the trip, my team was actively engaged in helping me to identify the perfect beggars and weeding out the fakes. They immediately went to work. Amit thought the shakes were fakes, but Swarup confirmed their authenticity. Alok saw that the guy with the crutch was really limping, and Kasi agreed. So we unrolled the windows and passed out the notes, and left them happy and me feeling good.

After visiting the temple (Swarup paid extra so we could save eight hours and cut to the front of the line), we stopped for some lime water, and I was surrounded by a group of Yogis dressed in bright orange robes. These are holy men of the Brahman caste, and they wander around town, accepting food and money in exchange for blessings and fortunes. I thought they just wanted money, and since they didn't look that hungry, I ignored them. Then Arunabh explained to me that the Hindu tradition was to support these guys, but that they were only allowed to take what they could eat at that moment.

There were 15 Yogis, and I pulled out three 20 Rupee notes. I offered them all to one Yogi, and pointed in a circle, gesturing that they had to share. They nodded enthusiastically, and I wanted to make sure, so I shook my finger at them, giving a stern look, and they all bowed their heads and saluted me by putting one hand straight up and down between their eyes. Then they offered us all a blessing, and we went through the marketplace and back to the car.

I got in the front passenger seat. I was again being lectured by Arunabh on why I should not be encouraging the beggars, and again I was explaining why I gave to only perfect beggars. An older woman walked up to my window and started talking to me. She went on for a while, holding out her arms, repeating herself. She had a very grating voice.

I said to the guys that this was an example of an almost perfect beggar. She was older, and it seemed like not many people would give her anything. The one thing I didn't like was her voice, so I rolled down my window and put my finger to my lips and said "shh".

She got the message, saluted me just like the Yogis did, and stood there. Swarup got out and talked to her in Telegu, and she answered him. Then she turned back to me, and started talking again, and got louder. Again I put my finger to my lips, and again she saluted and went silent.

I told the guys that I had found my perfect beggar! I pulled out 500 rupees (remember the 15 Yogis were excited sharing 60) and handed it to her. She took the money, and started talking again, and I put my finger to my lips. She bowed, saluted, and walked away, looking over her shoulder at us.

Swarup got back in the car, smiling. "Where are you gonna put it all?", he asked. The lady owned a food stand, and I had just bought it and its entire contents. Swarup said that he tried to stop me, but I was too excited with my perfect beggar, and too quick with my payout to her.

So my perfect beggar turned out to be not so perfect. We caught up with her, and I begged her to keep the stand and the food, then begged her pardon for my bad assumption. She bowed, bewildered, and we headed out.

As we were leaving, a cow put her head into the stand, stole a bag of goodies, and sauntered down the street with it in her mouth. A couple of ragged children ran behind, begging the cow to give them some food. Perfect.

my perfect beggar - india