Friday, December 23, 2011

Children, part 3: Beggars

I was waiting at the train station a few nights ago and was approached at various points by children who were begging.  I hadn't eaten dinner and had walked I'm not sure how many miles that day, so I was trying to buy a little something to munch on.  I first bought a tangerine and it was at that point that some kids started following me.  Next I bought samosas and I bought a couple extra to give to the kids staring at me. They followed me and a few more materialized as I bought some cookies, but I didn't buy any for them.  My thoughts wavered between the warnings I'd been given not to give to beggars and something I'd read about how Mother Teresa always carried food (and I think some money, too), so that she could always give to anyone who approached her.  I am no Mother Teresa, I can assure you; in fact, during the day I was rather nasty at various points to people I encountered trying to sell me this or that or convince me to ride in their rickshaws.  However, in the station my eyes and heart could not ignore the young faces before me, so my feeble attempt to relieve the ache in my heart was to buy two extra samosas.  The ache remained.

I then proceeded to my platform to wait for the train.  There didn't seem to be any beggars except along the first platform, which I had left. My train was late (only by a couple hours, which is pretty good, given that some trains are 6, 8, 12, even over 24 hours late here, especially this time of year when dense fog is a big problem), so I was standing on the platform longer that expected.  I was in Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, and waiting for the same train was a young American couple, who came to India for a wedding and were also doing some sightseeing.  The woman had been to Europe; the man had never been out of the U.S. before.  India was quite a culture shock for both of them. The man, in particular, seemed quite frustrated with the dirt, poverty, and difficulties he'd encountered, more, I think, because of his own discomfort than because some people have to live such harsh realities every day. Of course, I've had my own such times, so who am I to judge him...?

As we stood there chatting, the kids showed up again, one or two at a time, to beg.  The man was clearly getting angry with their persistent presence.  Using a little of my Hindi, I tried to tell the kids assertively, but not angrily, to go.  One boy remained and I put my hand gently on his head, looked him straight in the eyes and said, "I have nothing for you, but my real wish is for you to have an education, so that you wouldn't have to be here begging."  Of course, he didn't understand my words, but I felt the need to let him know that I knew he was there and a real person, even if he didn't know what I was saying. Eventually he left.  My heart ached for him and for the others there without, as far as I could tell, any adult supervision, though maybe there was someone out of sight the kids were begging for.  Who knows?

As I continued talking to the couple, I found out that the woman is a music teacher in a school for kids with learning disabilities.  I told her about my teaching, both in the U.S. and in India.  As we talked about our students, I kept looking at the dirty kids begging at the train station: the kids who were probably old enough to be in kindergarten through maybe fourth or fifth grade and the little toddler boy with them with only a sweater on, no pants, no shoes. Besides the life they were born into, were these kids different from those I've taught or the woman teaches? For awhile the station kids were huddled together spinning a few of the coins they'd been given, laughing and having fun.  The difference between their begging and the child who begs her mom for a particular snack or his dad for some toy is that the station children are asking something of strangers, not of people who know and love them.  Would we be angry at our own children if they were telling us they were hungry and were asking us for food?  I doubt it.

Yes, the station kids' begging could be seen as annoying, but it shames me even to use the word "annoying," as it implies that the children themselves are the problem, when the real problems are the inaccessibility of food, water, clothing, shelter, and education.  If the children's needs were met, would they be at the station? Anger is an appropriate response.  Anger directed towards the children is misplaced. Much easier, but misplaced. 

I stood there wondering what else I can do to make another tiny dent in the mammoth structure called "Injustice." I don't yet have an answer, but I'm glad that most of my time in India was spent hammering at that structure and I'd glad I lived with and met so many SCNs and other people who have made hammering their life work.  I'm glad I've been here long enough to understand a little bit about some people's lives here, though I have a long way to go in my learning, I know. Otherwise, I might feel the same misplaced anger and/or condescension that I saw in the man.

Our train finally came.  The couple went off to find their train car and I to find mine.  Right before I got on the train, I saw the little boy I'd spoken to in English, found the last few cookies I hadn't eaten, and gave them to him.  Still a woefully inadequate response, but maybe it means that that night, he had to beg from one less person...

My greatest wish for this Christmas is that no more children be born into a life of begging.  My wish for myself is that I become more aware of people's needs, so that I may give more freely from my abundance.  My wish for us all is that the Advent season of waiting and preparation that is ending leads us to experience and share the gratitude, joy, generosity, and peace of this Christmas season.

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