By Ratnottama Sengupta
Just the other day a news item reported that more than Rs 1 lakh was recovered from a beggar who died in Bengal. And some years ago the national media had widely circulated the story about a beggar who died in Mumbai leaving more than Rs 1 crore.
In the silent movie Pushpak (1987), Kamal Haasan, an unemployed graduate living in a ramshackle lodge, tries to show off in front of a roadside beggar and is humbled to discover the beggar has accumulated more money than him. In Dosti (Friendship,1964), blind Ramu and crippled Mohan sing and play the harmonica — one, to collect the fees for his friend’s school education; the other for his friend’s medical treatment in hospital when his nurse sister is ashamed to recognise a beggar as her kin.
Tear jerkers? Well, Charles Dickens did not romanticise child labour, domestic violence, and – most significantly — recruitment of innocent children in pickpocketing and begging. In Oliver Twist (1837-39), he depicted the cruel treatment of orphans and exposed their exploitation in London of the 19th century.
Such was the impact of the classic that my generation did not entertain beggars, especially if they were children seeking money. This, of course, had degenerated into employing ‘Chhotu’s’ or small children to sell sundry items — pens, tissue boxes, dusters — at busy traffic lights of the Indian Capital, such as ITO and Moolchand Crossings. And such was the disdain towards begging that my son Devottam, then only ten, once burst into tears because I refused to buy their stuff. “At least they are working and not begging, Mom!” he had pleaded in favour of the child.
Nabendu Ghosh, who had scripted Chanda Aur Bijli (1967), the Hindi version of Oliver Twist, did not romanticise such lives either. In story after story he portrayed the underbelly of urban life: the beggar Judhistir in ‘Down the Stairs’; pickpockets in ‘Khumuchis’; a man who smuggles opium in the belly of his dead child in ‘Jibika’ (Living); a man who strangled his child when he could not provide for him in ‘Kanna’ (Howl); pimps and prostituted women in ‘Dregs’, ‘It Happened One Night’, ‘Anchor’; a rioter who reforms in ‘Gandhiji’; a whole bunch of thugees in ‘Shei Sab Kritantera’ (Those Gods of Death).
He encapsulated the story of their descent in society without glorifying their actions or condemning their lives.
Small wonder that 15 years ago, when Nabendu Ghosh had turned 90, celluloid legend Mrinal Sen had said, “As a writer and a creative individual, Nabendu Ghosh has never believed evil is man’s natural state. Along with his characters, he has been confronting, fighting and surviving on tension and hope.”
This observation made me look anew at the protagonists of Baba’s stories and novels. And I realised that continually the writer was “exploring the greyer areas of ethical dilemmas,” as it was recently underscored. Few of his ‘heroes’ were ‘Rama’ and fewer still were ‘Ravana’ . If anything, there’s a constant overlap of the good and the evil in every single human, I now believe with him.
I am aware that West Bengal, the state I now live in, has had the highest number of beggars in the last census. As a journalist, I am also aware that people who exhibit their debilitating diseases — blindness, amputated limbs, leprosy or even gender discrimination — especially near tourist attractions, can be ‘revolting’ for some. I was once told point blank by a European friend living in America, “I know they do it because they have few other options but, while on a holiday, I don’t want to be burdened by their woes.”
The Tourism wing of the Indian government had, therefore, made an attempt to clear out beggars from tourist attractions such as Taj Mahal. Indeed, a new law was also considered to make it a crime for beggars — and touts — to touch tourists in Agra. This is perfectly understandable, especially in a post-COVID world.
But sympathy of the entire world has always been with the men and women who sit with the names of their country of origin to silently beg as they are refugees from war-torn zones. Ukraine today; Afghanistan yesterday; Syria the day before; Turkey Bosnia Romania Cambodia Vietnam…
And where have I not seen them? In New York and in London, I’ve seen them just as I have in Paris and Berlin, Moscow and Prague, in Myanmar and Bangkok, Beijing and Tokyo too!
You might say, in the East, it is a religious practice. And the practice of giving alms cuts through barriers of religion. This act of giving to destitutes, compulsarily or from generosity of spirit, was meant to enable the receiver to become self-content. But more importantly, it was enjoined that the giver should feel humbled that he has got a chance to be of service to humanity. And through this giving, he was also earning merit — it would get him respect, reputation, and in the long run, secure him a place in another world.
Centuries ago Buddha’s bhikshus were ordained to live off only what they earned by way of charity — food or any other object of necessity donated by a grihast, an ordinary householder. This is why, even during the pandemic, Thailand saw its Buddhist monks go on the daily rounds to collect alms. Monks, having sacrificed their all and severed connection with their families, are not to engage in farming nor save anything — they are to live off only the barest.
What’s more, they were not to collect more than what they would consume in a day, and they were not to keep anything for the next day. Because? Attachment was a hindrance to nirvana, detachment paved the path to salvation. Life without belongings is life without attachment – and total willingness to give was the sharpest weapon to saw through attachment.
Monks and mendicants are not contained by any religious order. Jains, Jews, Christians, Mohammedans — all have rules for giving written into the practice of the faith. Zakat, the compulsary act of giving in Islam, is said to purify the soul. Lent is a period of giving for Catholics. In churches money was placed at the altar to signify it belonged to God — and was to be used for the welfare of all. Thus many educational and medical institutions came to be established through such offerings.
I have grown up seeing bhikshus, sanyasis, pirs — all mendicants — outside temples in Kolkata’s Kalighat and Dakhshineswar, in Banaras and Puri, outside cosmopolitan Mumbai’s Haji Ali and Mount Mary too just as I have always encountered them at railway stations and heard them singing in the local trains of India’s financial capital: “Tum ek paisa dogey, Woh dus lakh degaa / You give me a penny, and God in heaven will grant you a fortune…”
That brings me to a couple of other practices, like street performances, and passing the hat around. What should I make of street performers who have been around — and still are — in ancient civilisations? Even today, and in major cities of the world, I see people perform rope tricks, acrobatics, music, dance — in public places, for gratuities. In many tribal belts dating back to antiquity, the rewards came in the form of food or other gifts. In so many corners of my country a bandar (monkey) or a bhalu (bear), is taken around to dance to the music of dafli (tambourine). And at the end of the performance the madari (juggler) collects whatever is offered or donated by the bystanders. Should I also include the snake charmer in this lot?
This form of ‘public performance’ rejuvenated itself in subsequent years into Street Theatre and even at the turn of the last century it continued to thrive in outdoor public places if only as agitprop. Dressed in eye catching costumes and with no props they would show up outside shopping centres, car parks, in Delhi’s Mandi House area or near the busy ITO Crossing, drawing attention with their physical action, perhaps mime, and vocal delivery with no voice amplification. Be it in university campuses or street corners performers — commissioned, or fired by ideology — would show up unannounced, and gather coins and notes dropped in the hat by audiences.
Yes, they too were drawing upon the attention, care, sympathy of their viewers to eke out a living. And yes, they too passed the hat although the expression — as perhaps the act itself — came into existence when a group of friends tried to collect money for a gift. So where do we draw the line to separate them from beggars?
As far as my limited knowledge goes, only four countries have legislated to impose an explicit ban on begging: Greece, Hungary, Italy and Romania. On the other hand, in Germany and Italy, such bans are unconstitutional.
Interestingly, I recently learnt that beggars in China have moved with the times and become tech savvy. “They park themselves near tourist attractions and subways with QR codes in their begging bowls to accept donations via Alibaba Group’s Alipay or Tencent’s WeChat Wallet,” the report said.
And why not? Internationally it has become a modern world practice to seek money via the Internet. Request help for medical care or for animal shelter, on birthdays gift for a cause, to pay for disaster management, or for school trips. Aren’t these all within the purview of Bhiksha – the Sanskrit word to denote begging for a grant of a boon, that is, something desired?
That’s why Ravana of Ramayan, dressed as a beggar, stood outside Rama’s kutir in Panchavati and hailed to Sita: “Bhiksham dehi!*”
*In Ramayana, Ravana came to Rama’s kutir or hut during his fourteen years of exile and said: ‘Bhiksham Dehi – please offer me alms.’
Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. Ratnottama Sengupta has the rights to translate her father, Nabendu Ghosh.
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