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.
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.
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.
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.
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?