Ajay has no muscles in his legs. He moves, crablike, by grabbing the balls of his feet with his seemingly huge hands, muscled by their continuous labour, and using his arms to lift and move them. He came to Delhi to beg. In his home town he would sit by the temple and shine shoes, but he could not have carried his equipment on the long bus journey.
He came here, alone, to hold out his hand to the tourists during the day, and sleep on the same street by night in just his shorts and vest. In the morning his arms would be so stiff and sore from the previous day that he could barely move them, but move them he must at 5am when the shopkeepers removed him from their porches.
He came to Delhi to beg because on the 4th was the Hindu celebration of Holi, and he wanted his family to enjoy a special meal. He also wanted to buy his family – 3 sisters and a mother – some new clothes. But the tourists were not generous. They cannot give to everybody, they say, so they give to no one. They offer sympathetic looks, a shrug of shoulders and raising of eyebrows, hands up and open and a smile that is half apology and half embarrassed encouragement. It is well-practised. They do this from their tables along the side of the street, where they are enjoying their food and drink at inflated but still ridiculously cheap prices. They do not guess that Ajay can speak English – he cannot read or write, but by repeating over and over the lessons from his sisters, he has managed to learn – and in their time here they have not yet learnt to speak the simplest phrase to him in Hindi
Sometimes they do not look at all, pretending not to here and forcing themselves not to acknowledge his presence, like ignoring a naughty child as punishment.
He returned home with very little money and a few clothes for his sisters, but not for his mother, and certainly not for himself. His father is dead.
Lucky is selling drums, which he says he makes himself. He comes to the Bazaar every morning from what I presume to be a slum, 30km from Delhi. He too is a foreigner, his family living far away, trusting his English and his courage to protect him during his lonely visit. He cannot return until he has made enough money for the bus ride at least. To date, he has sold no drums. He would, I’m sure, make more money begging, but he has no ailment except the poverty he was born into, and so the unseeing eyes of the tourists would be especially blind to him, as they confuse his entrepreneurship and truthful nature with the slyness of the smooth-talking salesmen and touts who call out in bastardised Australian accents that make them sound like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins.
He is too honest and polite to sell anything on this street of hawkers full of sceptical but stupid foreigners, and after realising that my interest in his drums extended no further than their curious sound but that my interest in him was deep, he befriended me and showed me to a place I wanted to go. The next day he bought me a soda, and he has taken it upon himself to teach me Hindi. He is young, perhaps 15, and cynicism has yet to scar his mind, but I fear it will not be long.
Anan is from Lucknow. He will be in Delhi’s Main Bazaar for 3 months, alone and homeless, trying to make some money to take back to his family. He is tiny. I have not seen him standing, but I would guess that his head would only reach my waist. At first I thought him to be a child, his body is so small and frail, but a faint moustache betrays his sixteen years. His limbs are almost all bone, and his right arm is hideously deformed at the elbow, bending at a horrible angle, the unnaturalness of it accentuated by the lack of any flesh on his arms. His face, too, was affected by whatever caused his condition, his jaw jutting out, his teeth sprayed away from his face, causing him to suck his saliva to stop him from dribbling. A repulsion hit me when I saw him first, and then a fear to be too close, or to touch him, but, scolding myself, I forced these reactions aside to see the boy and not the body.
For 3 months he will sit, or walk on his crutches, and beg for money. I’m sure he will be successful, but not from the heart of the people who give, but from their fear and repulsion and the guilt that will inspire. He wouldn’t smoke, or drink tea with me. His only guilty pleasures are to chew pan, one small piece a day, and to listen to his radio.
The guidebooks and the government say not to give to beggars, because it encourages begging, but I wish that someone would tell them – and me – exactly what else they are supposed to do.
India has to look closely at itself, and make some difficult decisions. It is growing fast, but the path to maturity should be a slow one, where shortcuts only lead to problems in the future. If it does not realise that growth at the expense of itself, by concentrating on GDP instead of infrastructure, social welfare, education, etc, then in time it will be as ravaged and crippled as the bodies of the beggars of its capitals Main Bazaar.