Two young girls with matted hair and soiled clothes tugged at my sleeve, “Hello, rupee.”
I shamefully clutched my handbag like I was about to be robbed. Having landed in India only minutes before, it was my first encounter with child beggars, and I didn’t know how to react. I had heard tales of begging syndicates. I had read stories of children sold by their parents, and stories of kids maimed to increase their potential begging income. I didn’t want to encourage a business profiting from innocent children. I wanted to help the girls but I felt helpless.
As the days went by, I learned to smile and wobble my head politely at the persistent child beggars on the streets of Bangalore. I even found the courage to offer two small beggars some fruit at the market. Knowing I shouldn’t give them money, why couldn’t I feed them?
“Madam, not to be doing,” warned the stall owner. “Many beggars will come.”
Within seconds I was encircled by a swarm of hungry kids with their palms facing the sky in hope of pocketing free fruit. I almost had to run for cover like a celebrity being hounded by paparazzi.
Several months later, the relentless onslaught of India’s child beggars had worn me out. A boy yanked my trousers as I walked across a busy street in the midday heat, my arms weighed down with grocery bags as he chanted “rupees”. My head wobble did not work. My words were ignored. He kept yanking. I kept walking. Then my hand shot out and swatted the air near his face, as though he were a pesky fly. My heart sank. Months of harassment had turned me into an impatient and apathetic b#@*h.
The next time a boy tugged on my clothes, I ignored his pleas and hopped into the comfort of my air-conditioned, chauffeured car. He pushed his face up to my window and I gave in, digging into my purse for some small change. I couldn’t deal with the emotional blackmail any more. I held the coin out the window but he shook his head, “Food. Chapathi.” As my driver pulled the car away from the curb, the little boy’s desperate face fell apart. A stream of tears made a line through the dust on his face. My heart ballooned in my chest.
So the next time a child beggar accosted me, I took the time to buy him a chapathi from a roadside shop. Another time I handed my packet of chips out the car window to some girls on the pavement. Their faces lit up and their arms waved at me with the energy of youth as my car disappeared. It was my own way of living with the guilt.