There seem to be two groups of children on the streets of Kolkata: the professional panhandlers and the destitute. Most in the former group wear tattered clothes and worn out sandals and seem to at least get a meal or two a day judging by their frames. Many in the latter group are barefoot and barely clothed or naked. Naked babies. Naked toddlers. Naked eight year olds, though their age is always a guess because they are invariably short and thin for their age. Despite their desperate state, this latter group does not beg, which caused me to reflect on the two groups of children who by most standards are both quite impoverished.
Group 1: the destitute
It is hard to engage the most desperate street children, both because it is devastating to see their condition and because there is no hint of childlike laughter in their eyes with which to start an interaction. Getting lost on the roads of Kolkata is the best way to see these children as they, unlike the professional beggars, do not roam the touristy stops. Jer and I took a wrong turn heading to a tourist office and ended up taking a circuitous loop through the less touristed streets: the ones Mother Theresa invariably knew well during her work in Kolkata. And unless you have something with you to offer, like Mother Theresa’s vision, a blanket, a set of child’s clothing, or the confidence that money is not futile, it is hard to interact with these children.
There are times that you see scenes so striking they are etched into your mind and become images you never forget. My work in public health started when I acquired enough of these that they turned into a short film in my head that blended with my consciousness so that I looked at the world in a different way. Two young girls in Kolkata added a new image to this short film of destitution. They were side by side on the corner of a busy intersection in the city. Buses, police cars, taxis, government vehicles, bicycles, vendors, businesspeople and pedestrians passed on all sides of them. The two had their pants pulled down and their feet up on the curb and were hanging back off the vertical bars of the sidewalk railing to defecate in the gutter as traffic whipped past. We approached them from the back as we crossed the street: two bare backsides, two ponytails four thin arms reaching skyward, and four small hands clutching the bars. As we passed in front of them four eyes, opened wide, followed our move. They were not even among the most destitute children we saw judging by the fact that they had clothes, but it was the act itself and the look in their eyes, which for the life of me I couldn’t read, that took my understanding of urban poverty to a whole new level.
I held their gaze as we passed, trying to recognize in it something to which I could respond. A tinge of embarrassment to which I could try to reassure them with a small smile. Anger that I could meet by at least not averting my eyes. Sadness or resignation that would indicate a small plea for some sort of relief from their state. But I couldn’t read any of this. Maybe the gutter toilet was so commonplace for them that they nearly forgot what they were doing and were just dumbstruck to watch two white foreigners, one a tall blond (Jeremy), on a street that doesn’t see frequent tourists.
For my part I have no idea what they read in my face; I was too absorbed by their eyes to know what my own expression was. But I hope with all of my heart that my eyes didn’t tell them what I was really thinking. That I wasn’t too surprised. That after watching men peeing all over their country and defecating in crop fields in plain view of their house (and me in the train) it was only a matter of time before seeing a woman or young girl following suit. That if I was living on the street as a child with cars and buses and people and cows passing my by without looking at me that I’d hang from the sidewalk rail as if playing on monkey bars and relieve myself too. Because if people can walk by without acknowledging you day after day, then you certainly must be invisible.
If I was so inclined I could draw all sorts of analogies and broader reflections on India from the two girls as their fists clenched the bars. Yes, they looked like monkeys in a disturbed world zoo. Yes, it’s hard to say if they’re in the cage looking out or if they’re outside the cage and can’t get in. Kolkata is known the world over for street begging. But none of the people on this street were begging. Every 20 paces there was another small family on the sidewalk. Generally the mother was lying on the pavement with her arm across her face or was grooming a child’s snarled hair. The babies were lying beside the mother while the toddlers, often naked, stood several feet away in the midst of sidewalk traffic peering up the length of legs passing on either side of them. They were some of the poorest of the poor – the lowest on the wrung of people getting by. People just slightly better off than those in times of famine who have hollowed out cheeks from a temporary state that will either ease or kill them. And still, not a single person extended a hand or even looked pleadingly at the people passing. If they looked up at all it was with an apathetic expression, much the same as a tired middle class person watching a television program that holds little interest.
Group 2: the “professionals”In general in Kolkata it is the women, the children and the decrepit who panhandle. Much has been researched and written about the industry begging has become. It is reported that most beggars work in groups, have shifts and managers, and are sometimes mutilated at a young age to increase their panhandling potential. The money collected each day is largely turned over to the man running the begging circle and by giving money to women with babies and people with maimed limbs, in particular, you are reinforcing the lucrative position of being in one of these two categories. So people inclined to give money handouts are in the tough situation of deciding if a handout does more harm than good. We usually tried to avoid deciding by giving food instead.
In addition to food handouts and wanting no part of the money-exchange side of this ‘industry’ I also defaulted to what I know best: chasing children. I’ve found that thanks to most foreigners and Indians who hustle past the onslaught of small tugging hands and “please sir’s!” called out, the last thing these kids expect is a foreign woman to turn around and lunge at them with tickling fingers extended.
Now some of the kids can be downright mean as they beg. They’ll pinch you, mutter unpleasant things, or demand money and I leave these kids to their work. But some of the children seem either bored by their work or to take it as a game, and these little ones scream with glee when I turn on them quickly. All it usually takes is one quick 180 degree hop with hands on my knees for the young panhandlers to realize that I’m not going to give them any money. Quick alternating taps on the head, tummy, nose, ears and chin reliably provoke eruptions of giggling. The interactions are usually short so they can return to their work, but it’s nice, even for a minute, to see smiles from these kids who know humanity all too well.