Happiness shared is happiness multiplied

This is another contribution from Mr Swapan Sen who has sent me several wonderful articles which have enriched this blog. You can read them here, here, here and here.

My car had stopped at a traffic signal at Park Street, Kolkata. A light tap on the window-glass on my side drew my attention. It was a small girl’s hand making the noise. Her outstretched hand, her emaciated little body, her face and unkempt hair smeared with dirt and dust – gave away her identity unmistakably. She was one the countless beggars seen at most of the traffic signals of Kolkata. These street-smart kids know that tapping on the car’s windows will, in most cases, cause enough annoyance to the occupants who will, just to get rid of their irritation, shell out a buck or two to them. Some of those passengers, who are more merciful, may also hand over some more money on their own. But as soon as this is done, many more similar children will flock around the window with outstretched hands, expecting similar merciful acts. I knew about all this but I could not resist the desire to see happiness lighting up the poor little face. So I put some coins on her outstretched hand.
The sight of beggars in Indian cities and towns is quite common. There are physically handicapped ones, able-bodied, children and babies in mothers’ arms everywhere The sight of these hapless human beings is so common that you and I are hardly moved by their appeals for help. Sometimes we take pity and hand over a few coins but most of the times we are outraged, when a beggar’s hand taps on our car’s window-pane as we wait at a traffic signal. Beggars in Indian cities are regarded as a nuissance by all, - foreigners and even our own countrymen. (The photographs, given below, were taken by Mr. Soham Gupta, a renowned photographer and reproduced with his kind permission).
There are many websites, mostly of travel agents and guides, who dole out free advices to visiting foreigners on how to tackle the beggars in Indian cities. According to one such website’s Indian Beggar Handling Tips, “If you are traveling to India, you are bound to come across beggars. Mostly you will find them begging at the red lights. Following are some tips for handling Indian beggars. So, if you want to know some Indian beggar handling tips, read on:
• If the beggar is a healthy person, don't give him any money or anything else. Ignore such people. Just walk past them or pull up the windows if you are in a car.
• In case of a physically handicapped person, you can give some money or even something to eat.
• If you come across children begging on the street, don't be surprised. It is better to give the children something to eat. If you give them money, it will most probably go into the pockets of their parents or some other person. They will hardly ever benefit from it.
• Always give beggars money at the time of leaving a place, as you get in the car. Otherwise, there is a possibility of your getting mobbed.
Give a tip to beggars between Rs. 2 to Rs. 10. If you give more money than this, you will run the risk of getting mobbed by beggars.”

Another website advises,- handling beggars in India is an acquired skill as some may be too nudging and reluctant to leave unless you give them some money. You can, the website says, give food or eatables to the handicapped and the really old ones. But, look out for some beggars posing as handicapped ones. They trade crutches with fellow beggars and go around begging.
Many foreigners, who come to India, are quite harsh in their opinion on charity to Indian beggars. One such visitor writes in his blog, “Of all of the advice I might give to individuals traveling to India – or most of the developing world – the most important one would be
Don’t give to beggars
I realize this sounds cruel and callous. It feels cruel and callous to me, even when I know it’s the best choice – especially when I’m sitting in an air-conditioned car in India, idling at a red light, and people who are clearly poor, clearly in need, come to the window begging for a small handout. Just a few rupees, which, to an American or other Western traveler, is next to nothing. Change I probably wouldn’t bother to pick up off the ground if I saw it. Can you ignore such clear need without guilt creeping up on you?
I can’t. I feel guilty for my Western extravagance when I see the numerous beggars in India. Very guilty. But I still don’t give them any money. The reason is because I know – from a few simple economic principles – that giving to beggars is not a particularly noble deed. In fact, I’d say that giving to beggars in a poor, developing country – like India – is a bad act.”

Yet there are some visitors like Paris Hilton, Hotel heiress and international celebrity, who was in India on a three-day business trip in September, 2011, showed her humanitarian side by tipping a beggar, a woman with a baby begging near her car, $100 when she was travelling to launch her bag store.

Paris Hilton must be, one of the exceptions, who know that happiness shared is happiness multiplied. But most of the visiting foreigners and websites, who come up with one reason or the other, including “opportunity costs and effective giving”, for not giving anything to the beggars in India have no good excuse to single out India as the world of beggars. They tend to forget that beggars are everywhere including the great cities of the most developed countries. The form of begging, however, varies. Some beggars beg by organizing shows and musical performances in public places like the Underground Railways of London and Paris and some, even in the streets of Bonn. Their get-up and appearances hardly betray their real identity as in the case of beggars in India. It is quite common to use the London Tube as a place for busking. “Street performance or busking”, (as described in the Wikipedia) is the practice of performing in public places, for gratuities, which are generally in the form of money and edibles.
Begging in London Underground became such a menace that the Underground authorities were compelled to put up notices prohibiting begging. There were also at times funny announcements on the trains and station premises for beggars, buskers and passengers (Research-work by Allan Turnham, http://www.guy-sports.com/months/jokes_train.htm#No_Begging Readers may like to refer to this great free-jokes website, created by Will Baker and Guy Thomas, who have been kind enough to permit me to quote some such announcements):
‘Please note that begging is not permitted in any part of London Underground. However, to the gentleman busking away happily next to the escalators, please carry on and enjoy yourself. The transport police have been called and should be with you shortly...'
• 'Beggars are operating on this train, please do NOT encourage these professional beggars, if you have any spare change, please give it to a registered charity, failing that, give it to me!'

Performing shows to collect money is also in vogue elsewhere. As a matter of fact, such shows in Paris Metro coaches were quite common in middle-eighties. In June, 1986, when I happened to take a ride in one the Paris Metro trains I found a Puppet show in progress. The intention of such “buskers” obviously was not merely to please the travelling commuters but to collect as much money as possible from them.
A puppet show in prgress at the Paris Metro: June 1986.

Later that year, when I was visiting Germany, I found a performing couple with their begging-bowl kept right in the middle of a busy street in Bonn. I never expected such “busking” in the then West German capital. I was reminded of a hapless couple who used to stroll along the streets in front of my house in Calcutta, playing a harmonium and singing songs in praise of Goddess Kali, with a begging bowl in the outstretched hand of one of them (Such begging, I came to know, is called panhandling” in USA and Canada). My memory also went back to the days when a man from Bihar used to stop by my house to organize a show of a dancing and mimicking pair of his pet monkeys for livelihood.

Although beggars are everywhere, in every country, developed or otherwise, it appears that there is a tendency to single out the Indian subcontinent as the home of beggars. This is hardly justified if you realize that the population of beggars in developed countries too, is not negligible considering their much smaller population. The beggars in such countries are also reportedly quite aggressive and their Governments have not been able to stop begging or do much for their rehabilitation and welfare.
Amidst the foreigners who visit India, there are, of course, quite a few, who have a different view about helping beggars. In a blog, a couple visiting India wrote,
“Look at these people, they are poor! If they are ill, it is because they don’t have money to go to the doctor, you should feel compassion, not disgust! And I know many poor people, who pay much attention on cleanliness.

It is actually a basic attitude. Those people, who want to enjoy, those who feel the energy of this place, those who are willing to be happy, will be happy. They come home and say ‘Of course there is a lot of poverty but if you look into people’s eyes they shine!’ And I tell you: if you have this attitude, you will enjoy your stay much more!”
Such people must also share the belief, “Happiness shared is happiness multiplied”.


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