x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

India's beggars need compassion, just as they did in 1942

An old memory of a beggar with a hidden talent evokes observations about what India's one million beggars need today.

The shrivelled, semi-clad woman was screaming, in Punjabi, at the urchins who were giggling at her: "Fithe moo twada", she shouted ("may your faces tear apart").

She picked up a handful of pebbles from the street and flung them at her tormentors, but they continued to jeer at her. "Where have you come from, crazy woman?" "Go away, you nude."

The woman was sobbing and frothing at the mouth but cried out "may the worms eat you".

It was 1942, and we were watching this outrageous drama from a tonga as we returned home for holidays from our college in Lahore to Tandaliawala (in Punjab, then in British India, now in Pakistan).

"Who is she?" I asked Abdul our tonga driver. "She is a crazy bikharan (beggar)" he answered. "Nobody knows where she has come from. She does not wear proper clothes and loafs all over town. She is homeless and sleeps anywhere, on any street."

In the next days the heart-rending condition of the harassed woman pierced our hearts. We would spot her around the bazaar - always defeated, dirty, semi-clad, cursing, the butt of jokes and jeers by passers-by.

My friends and I, revolted by this daily mockery of a hapless woman, spoke to Lala Chand who owned a tea-shop. He agreed to feed her with bread, biscuits and tea, for which we would pay him weekly. The beggar-woman was stunned, but it worked. Whenever she was hungry she hung around Lalaji's tea shop.

Next we tried to get her clothed. We sent her shawls to wrap herself in, and bedsheets, so she could sleep on the ground. But she tore them to shreds. She had no use for them.

Still distressed by the sight of a naked woman perpetually mocked by children, we sought the help of Bindhya, the maid in my home. We assigned her the task of tutoring the bikharan on wearing clothes. We gave her a few sets of loose Punjabi shirts and trousers for women. Where an entire town had only jeered, Bindhya succeeded in clothing her.

Then, nature took over.

In the 1940s there were no tape recorders or music downloads. A radio was a luxury. But a few affluent families owned gramophones. The most popular singer was KL Saigal, whose romantic songs mesmerised an entire generation. The bikharan always hovered nearby when the gramophone could be heard in our neighbour's courtyard. My friends often heard her humming.

Then we made a discovery. She had a sonorous voice and could sing beautifully. Soon she was delighting people in the streets with her renderings of Saigal's popular songs. Passers-by would give her some coins. The woman was flabbergasted to actually receive money for her singing. With great poignancy she would sing Jab Dil Hi Toot Gaya, ham jeekay kya karenge?, which means "what is the use of living when my heart is broken?".

She was no longer taunted as a bikharan but was now referred to as Allah-rakhi, meaning "one who is cared for by Allah".

We returned to Lahore to resume our studies. A year later when I returned home, I did not see Allah-rakhi anywhere. Nobody could tell me what had happened to her. "She just disappeared. One night she was there. Next morning she was not there," said Bindhya.

I wondered what had happened to her. Perhaps she grew weary of Tandalianwala and just moved on. Perhaps her family had reclaimed her. Perhaps a lover who had broken her heart had reappeared.

Nobody heard of her ever again, but her metamorphosis has always remained engraved in my memory. Now, 71 years later, when I see beggars at traffic signals or temples in India I wonder why we do not teach them the value of self-respect and making a living through some skill.

There are one million beggars in India, even after 66 years of independence. Many take to begging due to intense poverty, failed harvests, debts, lack of jobs and homes, and sheer abduction. Every year around 60,000 children are abducted and put on the streets to beg.

Begging is an industry. Many beggars have bank accounts. Tourists are repulsed at being approached endlessly.

India, one of the fast-rising BRICS nations, aspires to be a superpower. But we need to feed and clothe all our people first, so that no citizen must beg for a living.


Hari Chand Aneja is a 91-year-old former corporate executive who now keeps busy with charity work