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June 2, 1997


Farzana Versey

Thank goodness, at least I have a conscience

Dominic Xavier's illustration I don't normally like to chat up beggars. Probably, I don't suffer from that kind of guilt. But, once, as the chimeral vistas of a lazy dusk enveloped me in its cumulus presence, something gave way.

The gnarled hand stretched towards me took on a personality. It belonged to a person. He called himself Johny. Or Djuhnei, as it came through in his sozzled state. Now, talking to a drunkard at the best of times is a rather spaced out job; if he happens to be a beggar, the task is all the more difficult.

Besides, Johny was not interested in conversation. "Very hungry, madam, I want tea." In Bombay, almost all mendicants want tea. So Johny would get his tea and, with some deft bribery, I would get my soul-searching sop.

He was not born a beggar. He made a decent living by working in one of those textile mills that finally closed shop. He waited hopefully, marking time first on the pages of the calendar and then on the walls of the urinal. First he drank at nights; then, as he could not sleep, he drank till his eyes felt heavy, then his tongue, then his limbs. Till, one day, he thought (if at all he could think) that this was a jolly good thing to do.

Only, he had no money. He never did have a family, the new relatives that were there were gone with the wind and the pay cheques. He clearly remembers, it was a Sunday. He was staggering at the traffic island, hoping he could cross over to the other side, but he slipped. The cars were moving slowly and from one of them someone threw a coin. It was a rupee. A rupee in his hand, just like that! No sweat. A few more times he fell. He hit pay dirt regularly.

Then, one day, it did not happen. He looked up at the car windows, a look of pleading in his eyes. He smiled, he cried. No response. He got angry, he screamed. And, in deep frustration, he stretched out his palm. A coin was dropped into it. He was reborn, a beggar by profession.

There are an estimated 1.5 million such people around. Going by the salient features of a proposed draft bill on the prevention of beggary, it would seem that there are likely to be far more people at the official and non-official capacity to maintain vigilance than there are beggars that come within the official estimates. If only such a task force was put up to curb crimes and help to lessen social disparities, we would be living in a better society.

The proposed bill has tried to define begging as "soliciting or receiving alms in public places, entering any private premises for the purpose of soliciting alms or receiving alms, whether under pretence of singing, dancing, fortune-telling, performing tricks, selling articles, exposing or exhibiting any sore, wound, injury, deformity or disease whether on himself or any person or animal in public places or otherwise."

Pretty comprehensive, one would say. But, going by the definition, a number of us could well be beggars.

No human being takes to begging without a victim of circumstances. That he later continues raking in the moolah is as much due to us. There is nothing laid-back about beggary. Ask yourself who you would give money to -- a woman squirming from hunger and shame in a corner or one who taps you with a child suckling her and another one holding her hand, his snot running down his cheeks? Do we even have the basic good sense to be able to spot a genuine case of a person trying to retain his dignity? No, we don't. We want the grovelling, for it makes us feel superior. So grant it to the beggars, they have learnt salesmanship because there is a demand for it.

Banning begging will result in more bribes and corruption at the vigilance level and it is guaranteed that those who will be rounded off will not be those who are diseased. No cop is going to touch them.

And what happens to the well-dressed people, schools and social organisations who tap you for donations? The latter, especially, are quite cumbersome. They sweet-talk you about ending hunger by the next century and send you spiffy-looking brochures about projects in the pipeline.

I don't want any pipe dreams. I'd rather see a waif get one square meal. You may accuse me of trying to appease my conscience. But I can have the satisfaction of saying, thank goodness, at least I have a conscience.

Illustration: Dominic Xavier

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Farzana Versey