Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Wealthy Beggar

What qualifies for poverty in a rich country is quite different from what it actually is. If you have ever been to India, you know what a beggar actually looks like - very skinny, with no possessions, almost no clothes, often blind, crippled or disfigured by disease, desperate, and usually very humble and grateful if you give him something. And - some of them have the most amazing eyes you will ever have the good fortune to look into. You are reminded of biblical times - both by the level of poverty and the level of depth of soul in some of these "beggars".

In sharp contrast to the common picture of often plump American beggars, rolling shopping carts through town with several overstuffed garbage bags bulging over every side. In India, even the most desperate beggars have an air of lightness and freedom about them, while the American beggar looks burdened, weighed down, and tethered to his shopping cart, often angrily defending his possessions and territory. They are fighting a very hard battle.

Here is the Mercedes of shopping carts - a great and useful invention! If you have to be homeless, as many often have to by no fault of their own, it is good to be homeless in America. An Indian may look at this image and think this is a wealthy street vendor with a thriving, and fully stocked business.

In India you are discouraged from giving money to beggars in order to end the type of business, where large organizations have their most desperate beggars out in the streets hustling for them. Beggars in India have to give most of what they collect to people who exploit them. Crying mothers with bleeding babies entice tourists into compassionate and generous giving, and children in general, are used to maximum effect. A common picture is men without legs rolling around on little wooden platforms that bump into your legs, only to have you turn around and see no one there, until you notice the hand reaching up to you from the ground.

Such a man started chasing a friend of mine at the Haridwar Train Station several years ago. Not only along the length of the whole platform, but down a flight of stairs, and back up another flight of stairs to the other platform she had to get to to catch her train. Her fear of him finally turned into anger and she turned to confront him, only to be presented in that very moment with a shy and triumphant grin - as well as her wallet - which had both her passport and $500 worth of rupees in it.

This was a wealthy man.

A 2007 map of the rich and poor in the world according to income per person.

No comments: