“Mom, don’t look at them! They are part of the mafia. Don’t you understand?” I exclaimed as my mom and I sat in Mumbai traffic on our way from the airport, besieged by beggars tapping at our taxi window. It was August 2010, and I was a seventeen-year-old rising high school senior. I had spent four months exploring the country—mostly alone—and, at least in my own mind and judging from my exasperated exhortations to my mom, I was practiced at the art of fending off beggars, one of the most heartbreaking dilemmas of the Indian experience for the foreign visitor.
As I sat in the cab driving to our hotel, ignoring the tapping on the window and assured in my self-righteous perspective, I realized how much I had changed. Four months earlier, when I had first arrived in Delhi alone and taken a similar cab ride, I must have rolled down the car window fifteen times, handing out hundred rupee notes, unconscious of the value of the Indian currency and, more importantly, inexperienced at confronting real and tangible poverty—especially in the form of a young beggar child. During the intervening three months, I heard time and time again that these beggars were professionals: that they were part of crime syndicates and that dispensing my spare change to them would make no real difference. Looking back at my evolution from naïve empathy to principled resolve, I recognized the influences of Indian friends, hotel clerks and even a New York Times article on my “informed” opinion. Moreover, the sheer volume of need that I saw on a daily basis made me certain that my small contributions could not make a meaningful difference in the overall problem of poverty.
After my first trip to India in 2010, I returned home to the U.S. believing that I knew how to handle beggars. I needed to control my natural feelings of empathy and adhere to the precept that I was not really helping by giving money. Indeed, filled with a self-certitude that came from personal experience, I recall remarking to friends that poverty is not alleviated by giving two rupees to a child beggar but through education reform, government investment, and the plethora of NGOs that dot the world.
Four years later, in January 2014, I came to India for the second time as a college student studying for a semester at St. Stephen’s College in Delhi. Now a 21-year-old college junior with patchy facial hair, my four-year-old rigid concepts of how to handle poverty in India immediately crumbled once I was confronted with the tandem emotions of discomfort and compassion at the sight of a girl—barely my little sister’s age—holding an infant by my taxi. I rolled down the window and handed out a twenty rupee note, this time only slightly more aware of the value of my actions.
Within a few days of this reversion, I was confronted by a fellow student who chastised me for giving rupees to children, claiming that only naïve travelers give money and that if I was going to live in India I needed to act more like a local. I immediately changed tact to a middle ground between giving and withholding: giving snacks. Filling my backpack daily with Parlee-G cookies, I tore open the packages and dispensed the goods to familiar faces that approached me on my way through Delhi to and from school. Smiling kids looked at me with surprise when they noticed a cookie in place of a coin. However, as the months clicked by with no apparent changes to this routine and no tangible progress for the poor, I grew exhausted and settled back into gently saying “bas” and briskly moving on or turning my head into my phone. I settled back into the belief that I was not fixing a problem by giving and simply could not handle the mental strain of the constant poverty. Thus, the giving stopped altogether: it was easier for me to just stop than to constantly be concerned with providing my alternative donations to the children.
After seven months, I left India more confused than ever. Back in the U.S. and watching the scenes of Slumdog Millionaire in the comfort of my living room, I would point out to my family and friends the alleged accuracy of the portrayal of the beggar children’s lives—perhaps as some subtle psychological coping mechanism for the deeply conflicted views I held from my last experiences in the streets of Delhi. The comfort of home numbed my troubled mind, and I spent the next two years making no progress on the issue of poverty in India and much more time on creating memories with friends in the waning years of my undergraduate experience.
In September 2016, a college graduate and freshly-minted campaign worker, I returned to India as an AIF Clinton Fellow. Driving from the Delhi airport with 30 other fellows about to embark on ten months of service work in India, I wondered when it would hit me. This time, sheltered in the bus, I had no opportunity to roll down my window. I was determined to not let the lessons of my prior two visits slip from my mind. Indeed, I would not let the other fellows think I was a rookie traveler or naïve to the Wall Street Journal’s article on the economics of begging. This time I would actually try to be part—albeit a small one—of the solution. I ultimately landed in Ahmedabad and began work on a human rights and education campaign among the Valmiki communities. Now, as a volunteer in India working directly with potentially the most marginalized and oppressed community in the urban context, I would have an excuse—a rationale, if you will—to justify not giving to beggars. I would be directly engaging with the community, which I assumed must be more beneficial than sporadic moments of charity.
It was my first day in one of the slums of Ahmedabad that I began to struggle with this new found confidence. Sitting and talking with Valmiki women, I watched their small children run up to them, placing small coins in their hands. The children then jogged away, returning to the intersection next to the slum, weaving between cars and rickshaws, pointing to their stomachs and mouths beside the windows of the stopped cars. My resolve began to crumble yet again. I know beggar mafias exist. I know that by giving you only serve to perpetuate the problem. I know there is forced mutilation that occurs to children and adults alike so they can draw in more money. But, I still can’t resist handing out a rupee note to the young girl standing beside my rickshaw.
I am not a man who lives a life defined by charity. But as I spend hours at my organization, pouring through studies on marginalized communities and poverty in India, my heart breaks. I’m frustrated, disheartened. I walk into my mentor’s office, ranting about the horrors of the caste system and the problems with current policy. But somehow, as I begin my walk home, I am able to compartmentalize this knowledge of poverty and abuse and simply shake off three kids after having a particularly challenging day. I hate this. I feel lost—I feel that my own mother would be ashamed that her son will spend a thousand rupees on McDonald’s but can’t spare two for a potentially hungry child.
Although I know that the money often does not go directly to that child, I can’t help but think what if. What if my one act of giving cuts a child’s night of begging short and she spends less time inhaling the fumes of cars and trucks? What if she has a little bit more on her plate that night as a result? What if bringing in one extra rupee affords her an extra minute of playing with friends, What if …? By this logic, shouldn’t I always give? But, for some reason, I find myself capriciously reaching into my pocket as the children approach my side. It is what pains me most on a personal level: how I parse out my charity. I will give on Monday and ignore on Tuesday. I am not sure why this is, maybe this is just how I cope with the painful reality of poverty. Some days I’m generous and others I just want to remove myself. I become exhausted. There are only so many times that a person can seek an answer and come up empty-handed before they feel discouraged from seeking at all. I don’t know the answers, and I doubt I will leave India this time with the same confidence of years earlier. But I do know that I am working on figuring something out, and that I have such doubts.