India: Thoughts on beggars, poverty, and happiness

As a Westerner, and when in the more touristy areas of any city, there is a continuous flow of people selling and begging.   The adult men are mostly selling, but if you see one with a metal canister hanging from his arm, you can be certain he’ll ask for money.   Sometimes they want money for the sake of asking.  Other times they will wave their incense pot in your face and ask for a donation, other times they ask to have their picture taken for a few Rupees.

The taxi’s and tuk-tuk drivers are constantly asking if you want a ride.  But it’s the children that are the most difficult.  They are persistent and rarely take a gentle “no” as an answer.  In Pushkar the children put a spin on the religious nature of the city and say they don’t want money, they want food, and that buying them food will bring you good karma.  However, to actually buy them food, you would have to go to their favorite stall and pay the tourist price for whatever it is they want.  It’s a scam, but one that pulls on your heart strings a bit more than some old bugger selling a whiff of incense.

Dealing with the children has been an interesting challenge.  Giving in to them would be a never-ending situation, so that would not work.  They travel in packs, and I’ve seen what happens when a Westerner hands something over.  They communicate to each other like ants, and within seconds they are swarming around you.  No, that approach would definitely not work.

A firm, but affectionately delivered “NO” can sometimes work, but it has the negative effect of backfiring and making you feel like a mean old fart.  So, that would only be used in very extreme situations, and I’m trying not to do that at all.  Looking them in the eye and saying a gentle “no” can sometimes work only if you say it about a dozen times.

The latest approach is to stop (‘cause they mostly are hitting you up when you are walking), give them a long look while maintaining a smile and looking into their eyes, and tell them very quietly, “no, do you understand no?”  Give them a second to digest this before walking away, and then continue on.    It seems to work OK, and it appears to not leave a negative effect on either party.   I did this yesterday to one of the most aggressive and persistent little girls yet.  Then today another girl about her age, 13 or so, was trying to extract a few Rupees from me and before I had much time to tell her “no”, this girl from yesterday appeared and told her friend, in Hindi, essentially not to bother because I’m not paying.  I told her “I’m not paying”, and she said, “yes, I told her that”, and you know, she was smiling and not in the least bothered.  I guess I’m a marked man in Pushkar!

One of the other areas of concern in planning this trip was how to deal with all the poverty, because in all the places I’ve been, Tibet, Nepal, and now India, poverty is everywhere and constant.    And this poverty is not like the Peruvian poverty I saw when traveling there.  It’s much, much more severe.

One reaction is to feel guilty.  But I don’t.  How could I?  I didn’t cause this poverty, nor can I effectively do anything about it.   I don’t feel like I gained what I have through unscrupulous means and certainly not at these peoples expense.   There is another reality that strikes you after weeks in this situation, and those realities are that the majority of our planet – the vast majority – lives like this or worse (or maybe only marginally better).

Most of the people on Earth live one hell of a lot closer to this level of poverty, than to the level of affluence of anyone who’s reading this.   We have a very poor planet, and our affluent lives and abundance of material belongings are the extraordinary exception.

Extracting sugar can juice for drinks.

This then begs the next question, “Who’s happier”?   Well, I think it’s a safe bet that there would be agreement that all our stuff does not, on the whole, give us any certainty of happiness.   I think it’s a given that if you are looking for happiness from your possessions you’re guaranteed to fail in that endeavor.

As I say in the world of cycling, if you are keeping score, you can expect to be disappointed because someone will always be faster or stronger than you.   If you compare you to you, then if you want to be better than you were, you can work on that.    If you want to have more stuff, then you’ll never get there because by definition there is no end to that, and if you’re keeping score, there will always be someone with more who will make you feel like you have less.

So, back to their happiness.   I have no idea if they are happy or not, but I can tell you this with absolute certainty, they don’t look any less happy then the rich Westerners I’ve seen in my life.   These people are friendly and give the most genuine smiles imaginable.  I never see those looks from people on the streets of the US.    This is their life, and while it’s not a life I would want, I have to say, they don’t look miserable.  I’ve seen people who appear far more miserable who have a LOT more stuff and a lot more living comforts.

This is the morning after of a traditional Indian wedding.  At first I though they were filming the latest Bollywood movie, then I thought it might be some corporate event, but no, an Indian Wedding.  Quite an affair.

~ by Robert on June 12, 2011.

2 Responses to “India: Thoughts on beggars, poverty, and happiness”

  1. Great photos and comments, Rob.


  2. Well put! I love the photo with the child amongst the sari-ed women.


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