Wandering India

This is a post about beggars

Walking down the street from my hotel to the metro, I was treated to the scents of urine, dirt, and exhaust. Incense, spices, and street food frying in oil. My tour group and I were on our first outing together to visit the Lotus Temple in Delhi.

The Lotus Temple
The Lotus Temple

We rode the metro there, and when we arrived at our stop (Kalkaji Mandir on the violet line), we paused outside the station beside an orange vendor and his cart. The fruits were green, but we could tell they were oranges because the vendor peeled them theatrically and their smell was unmistakable. We watched as the fruits released sweet mist into the air where it mingled with incense smoke, dust, and city smog.

We walked away from the orange vendor, and into a crowd of beggars — more impoverished people than I had ever seen in one place. Women gesturing from their mouths to their stomachs, wielding babies as if to drive the point home, and children whose heads barely reached my waist. They tugged on my pant leg asking for food in English and a language I didn’t recognize but imagined was Hindi. Sometimes I replied, “no,” but I was rarely firm enough to deter them, so we walked along together, them tugging, and me ignoring, allowing my eyes to slide over them, never meeting their gaze.

A Delhi street scene from above
Delhi street scene from above

I know all the reasons why I shouldn’t give to beggars — the cruel ones and the sad ones. My money doesn’t really make a difference. I’m better off donating to a local charity that works to keep children in school or find jobs for young mothers. If I gave to one beggar, I’d have to give to all of them. Some beggars are just trying to scam tourists. And, most sobering of all, I could be witnessing forced begging, the trafficking and exploitation of children because they draw more sympathy and more money than adults, particularly if they look filthy and underfed, or have a physical disability. And I don’t want to contribute to that secret, horrifying economy. Not if I can help it.

So, I don’t feel bad about not giving money to beggars, but my refusal to meet their gaze or acknowledge them felt disrespectful and inhumane. It was the easy option. I ignored and pushed past the beggars so that I wouldn’t be worn down or made vulnerable. Empathy is time consuming, and so I didn’t bother with it much on my way to the Lotus Temple. I’m only considering it now, after the fact, in the hopes of reacting to beggars more respectfully in the future.

Architecture in Delhi
Main Bazar, Pahar Ganj, Delhi

I’m left wondering: How do I acknowledge the humanity of beggars without supporting an economy of begging? I’d never make it down the street if I stopped to have a meaningful conversation with any of these people — there are too many and they are (rightfully) relentless.

And therein lies an answer: Maybe the good and righteous thing to do is to not make it down the street. Maybe I shouldn’t be allowed to get where I need to go if there are suffering people standing in my way.

Now, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be tourists on a time table in places where beggars live. I’m not saying that you, the reader, are a bad person if you don’t stop. Or, that you’re a bad person if you do stop and give money to a beggar in a community other than your own. Although, because of the reasons I outlined above, I’d urge you not to do so. And I add the caveat of “in a community other than your own” because I think our money and our time make the most impact where we live, and I trust you to know what’s best for your community.

Photo taken while riding in an autorickshaw, somewhere in Delhi

What I’m doing in this post is analyzing my own guilt and considering the reasons behind it. I’m a Christian, so, I’m wondering how I can lead a Christ-like life as a privileged person and a frequent traveler. I don’t have any practical answers, but I want to share my thoughts and I’m interested in hearing yours.

How do we acknowledge the humanity of beggars without contributing to an economy of begging?

Emma Holliday is well-traveled. After 5 years in Boston, she and her husband upended their lives to move to Berlin where she is currently writing a (funny) book about travel and grief and attempting to learn German.


    • opportunemma

      I agree that this question is important regardless of religious affiliation (or lack thereof). When I was writing this post, I realized that my Christian faith is important to my understanding of what is good and respectful. But people have many different ways of aligning their moral compasses — some involve organized religion and some don’t and they’re all good and valid. I don’t want anyone to feel uncomfortable or excluded when I mention my beliefs.

  • holysmithereens

    When I lived in the Philippines and Cambodia I see this everyday. I don’t give money. But I give food. Engage in conversation, just interact and get to know their lives. What they think. What their dreams are. In small conversations like this I encourage children to go to school. It’s not always safe to do this but I prefer doing this than shelling out money, which I never do. As you said it just encourages the cycle. There’s only so much one can do. You can’t save the world, but you can at least make them feel human, uplift their dignity and in this way they can aspire to be better.

    • opportunemma

      Thank you so much for leaving this comment. I especially like the points you made about dignity and how engaging in conversations isn’t always safe. I think that was one of my fears in India — I couldn’t stop to treat one beggar with dignity because I would be making myself vulnerable. It’s a balancing act to know when I need to get out of an unsafe situation and when I’m uncomfortable, but not in danger. The times when it’s the latter I want to be a braver, kinder, better person and start taking the time to engage.

  • Colleen Brynn

    First, I like how you go about describing the smells, especially when the oranges come into play.
    Second, I think this is a super valid question to ask. It’s something I struggle with every day when I travel somewhere people are visibly poor and in need. One thing I always try to do (if the beggar is willing) is to make eye contact. I try not to smile too much because I don’t want it to come off as pity, but I do look to acknowledge their existence and their life. I also walk a fine line with staring, but I’m aware of this and I’m careful. I don’t find that this delays me in anyway, but then again, I haven’t been to India. Yes, sometimes eye contact can engage a person and they may think they’ve got you cornered, but in those cases, a firm “no” is what I use. And yes, that can be heartbreaking. I never give money to beggars, but I have given food before. Some were legitimately grateful. Others were scamming me. But I feel like at least food can be eaten, money cannot (if the beggar is being exploited, as you say).
    I have my own post about beggars in my head that I started to write over the summer. You’ve inspired me to finish it. Thanks.

Leave a Reply